Among the tell-all memoirs and deep exposés of the Trump administration, one popular nonfiction book from the past year has stood out in the minds of mainstream thought leaders across the political spectrum. The Coddling of the American Mind offers an answer to an apparent problem: what’s gone wrong on college campuses over the past few years?
The authors, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and free speech activist Greg Lukianoff, believe that young people, especially college students, have been overcome by the so-called “Three Great Untruths.” Students “always trust [their] feelings,” they fear that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker” and they believe that “life is a battle between good and evil.” These “Untruths” push college campuses toward a breaking point where administrators are forced to become thought police and any untoward word can start a riot. At least, that’s what Lukianoff and Haidt seem to think.
The authors already miss the mark when they set the stakes of the problem on college campuses. Lukianoff and Haidt spend an inordinate amount of time focused on student discontent and protest when colleges invite certain objectionable speakers or when an administrator demonstrates their cultural blind spots.
The authors do identify a couple instances of misdirected student outrage, but more of their case studies merit an overreaction at most. More to the point, these incidents only end up engaging a small percentage of students at a small percentage of colleges. Drawing such broad claims from so few data points makes for an unconvincing argument.
Lukianoff and Haidt do spend some time looking at real hurdles to a healthy higher educational environment. They identify the noticeable increase in students suffering from mental illness, the emotionality of contemporary politics and how college administrators struggle to respond to campus-wide outrage.
When Lukianoff and Haidt try to explain these trends, however, they do so unpersuasively. The Three Untruths are a useful mnemonic for the authors’ more precise pronouncements—that young people more frequently rely on cognitive distortions, like catastrophizing or negative filtering—but they also treat the problem apparently affecting an entire generation like a cognitive maladjustment. Young people can just think differently and the problem will sort itself out.
Lukianoff and Haidt similarly argue that campus administrators should take cosmetic steps like adopting the University of Chicago’s Statement on Free Expression, “foster[ing] school spirit” or responding more reservedly to on-campus controversies. The authors believe in order to fix “a generation for failure,” as the book’s subtitle puts it, school administrations need only cognitive tweaks and a stronger stance against students who speak up.
Almost absent from the authors’ analysis is any concrete consideration of what it means to be a student today. Most contemporary students aren’t rioting about controversy-mongers who speak at colleges. They’re trying to find the building blocks for the future of the rest of the world, as that world seems incapable of holding firm foundations for anyone at this point.
Lukianoff and Haidt might’ve considered the impact of the 2008 financial crisis, which threw many of the current generation’s families into economic insecurity, or the fact that so many college graduates struggle to find jobs, compared to Lukianoff and Haidt’s era.
The authors also might’ve considered political indifference to mass shootings at schools or the potential that climate change will irrevocably damage the planet in the next two decades.
If those seem like overly broad problems, or if they seem like catastrophizing, maybe the authors could have found more inspiration from the very concrete and very personal burdens of the student debt crisis, which has grown 157% over the past 11 years.
While these concrete concerns may not account for the issue the authors identify with young people, they certainly deserve at least some of the authors’ analysis.
Instead, the authors speak with a very mealy mouth about “wisdom and its opposite” and broadly diagnose huge swathes of the population without a second thought. It makes for a simple solution to a complex problem that has received plenty of plaudits. Lamenting the coddling of kids these days, however, does little to actually answer any of the questions the book poses.
Despite all their good intentions, Haidt and Lukianoff displayed their own potential for bad ideas.