In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, the authors make the case that our culture has embraced three Great Untruths in the past ten years or so:
- The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
- The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
- The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.
Embracing these Great Untruth is producing many negative consequences for our society, consequences that are particularly visible in many College campuses disputes.
The authors explain their criteria for classifying an idea as a Great Untruth:
- It contradicts ancient wisdom (ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures).
- It contradicts modern psychological research on well-being.
- It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.
One of the main points argued in the book is that children are damaged by a well intentioned culture of “safetyism” where parents overprotect them from harm, but in doing so, the parents prevent their children from developing the necessary skills of resiliency.
The authors believe that this parenting “style”, what they call “paranoid parenting” may be a contributing factor in some of the campus speech disputes, because students are now used to fearing anything that may prove emotionally challenging and often overreact.
There is a lot more in this book that I have found very interesting, especially the description and analysis of the reasons and consequences of recent violent college campuses disputes.
Top 40 Quotes from The Coddling of the American Mind
“Prepare the child from the road, not the road for the child.” (Folk Wisdom, origin unknown)
“Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded. But once mastered, no on can help you as much, not even your father or your mother.” (Buddha, Dhammapada)
“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago)
“The culture on many college campuses has become more ideologically uniform, compromising the ability of scholars to seek truth, and of students to learn from a broad range of thinkers. Extremists have proliferated on the far right and the far left, provoking one another to ever deeper levels of hatred. Social media has channeled partisan passions into the creation of a ‘callout culture’; anyone can be publicly shamed for saying something well-intentioned that someone else interprets uncharitably.”
“On some campuses, only certain political positions are acceptable, and any deviation must be shamed publicly. For older observers, this might bring to mind the Soviet Union, where citizens could be arrested for failing to applaud loudly enough when the ruling party’s leader is mentioned.”
“If students succeeded in creating bubbles of intellectual ‘safety’ in college, they would set themselves up for even greater anxiety and conflict after graduation, when they will certainly encounter many more people with more extreme views.”
“The more we strive for perfect safety, the harder it is to venture out into the world and learn its lessons. Children are thus unprepared to deal with people who hold ideas inimical to the ones they have been taught. College and life beyond it are filled with different ideas; it’s a mistake to shield students from such controversy. Instead, they should learn how to listen to and debate with new and uncomfortable ideas.”
“[M]any parents, K-12 teachers, professors, and university administrators have been unknowingly teaching a generation of students to engage in the mental habits commonly seen in people who suffer from anxiety and depression.”
“Meant to keep students safe, their attitudes of personal fragility, emotional certainty, and us-versus-them paranoia generate distortions that render young people vulnerable to mental instability and deep unhappiness.”
“This is an essential part of our story. Americans now bear such animosity toward one another that it’s almost as if many are holding up signs saying, “Please tell me something horrible about the other side, I’ll believe anything!” Americans are now easily exploitable, and a large network of profit-driven media sites, political entrepreneurs, and foreign intelligence agencies are taking advantage of this vulnerability.”
“In our identitarian age, the bar for offense has been lowered considerably, which makes democratic debate more difficult—citizens are more likely to withhold their true opinions if they fear being labeled as bigoted or insensitive.”
“By the standards of our great-grandparents, nearly all of us are coddled. Each generation tends to see the one after it as weak, whiny, and lacking in resilience. Those older generations may have a point, even though these generational changes reflect real and positive progress.”
“Continued progress in Western civilization has provided us with many luxuries. Older generations may see these, not as attributes of success, but as flaws that spoil the children. It’s true that people need to push against difficulties to grow stronger, yet instead of climbing onto the advantages our forebears have brought us and reaching yet higher, we have begun to hide behind those advantages, as if they might blot out entirely the risks we face in life.”
“Teaching kids that failures, insults, and painful experiences will do lasting damage is harmful in and of itself. Human beings need physical and mental challenges and stressors or we deteriorate.”
“By shielding children from every possible risk, we may lead them to react with exaggerated fear to situations that aren’t risky at all and isolate them from the adult skills that they will one day have to master.”
“If we protect children from various classes of potentially upsetting experiences, we make it far more likely that those children will be unable to cope with such events when they leave our protective umbrella. The modern obsession with protecting young people from “feeling unsafe” is, we believe, one of the (several) causes of the rapid rise in rates of adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicide.”
“A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”
“Like the immune system, children must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits, and in age-appropriate ways), or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions.”
“If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
“Grant offers the following four rules for productive disagreement: Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict. Argue as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong (and be willing to change your mind). Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective. Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them.”
“The notion that a university should protect all of its students from ideas that some of them find offensive is a repudiation of the legacy of Socrates, who described himself as the “gadfly” of the Athenian people. He thought it was his job to sting, to disturb, to question, and thereby to provoke his fellow Athenians to think through their current beliefs, and change the ones they could not defend.”
“A culture that allows the concept of “safety” to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”
“If we want to create welcoming, inclusive communities, we should be doing everything we can to turn down the tribalism and turn up the sense of common humanity.”
“Teaching kids that failures, insults, and painful experiences will do lasting damage is harmful in and of itself. Human beings need physical and mental challenges and stressors or we deteriorate.”
“Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
“Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals if you do the opposite of what Misoponos advised. That means seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe”), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality).”
“The nine in our list are based on a longer list in Robert Leahy, Stephen Holland, and Lata McGinn’s book, Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders… EMOTIONAL REASONING: Letting your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.” CATASTROPHIZING: Focusing on the worst possible outcome and seeing it as most likely. “It would be terrible if I failed.” OVERGENERALIZING: Perceiving a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.” DICHOTOMOUS THINKING (also known variously as “black-and-white thinking,” “all-or-nothing thinking,” and “binary thinking”): Viewing events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.” MIND READING: Assuming that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.” LABELING: Assigning global negative traits to yourself or others (often in the service of dichotomous thinking). “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.” NEGATIVE FILTERING: You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.” DISCOUNTING POSITIVES: Claiming that the positive things you or others do are trivial, so that you can maintain a negative judgment. “That’s what wives are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.” BLAMING: Focusing on the other person as the source of your negative feelings; you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”
“There are just two activities that are significantly correlated with depression and other suicide-related outcomes (such as considering suicide, making a plan, or making an actual attempt): electronic device use (such as a smartphone, tablet, or computer) and watching TV. On the other hand, there are five activities that have inverse relationships with depression (meaning that kids who spend more hours per week on these activities show lower rates of depression): sports and other forms of exercise, attending religious services, reading books and other print media, in-person social interactions, and doing homework.”
“But efforts to protect kids from risk by preventing them from gaining experience— such as walking to school, climbing a tree, or using sharp scissors— are different. Such protections come with costs, as kids miss out on opportunities to learn skills, independence, and risk assessment.”
“When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent. MENG TZU (MENCIUS), fourth century BCE1”
“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.”
“But overprotection is just one part of a larger trend that we call problems of progress. This term refers to bad consequences produced by otherwise good social changes. It’s great that our economic system produces an abundance of food at low prices, but the flip side is an epidemic of obesity. It’s great that we can connect and communicate with people instantly and for free, but this hyperconnection may be damaging the mental health of young people. It’s great that we have refrigerators, antidepressants, air conditioning, hot and cold running water, and the ability to escape from most of the physical hardships that were woven into the daily lives of our ancestors back to the dawn of our species. Comfort and physical safety are boons to humanity, but they bring some costs, too. We adapt to our new and improved circumstances and then lower the bar for what we count as intolerable levels of discomfort and risk. By the standards of our great-grandparents, nearly all of us are coddled. Each generation tends to see the one after it as weak, whiny, and lacking in resilience. Those older generations may have a point, even though these generational changes reflect real and positive progress. To repeat, we are not saying that the problems facing students, and young people more generally, are minor or “all in their heads.” We are saying that what people choose to do in their heads will determine how those real problems affect them. Our argument is ultimately pragmatic, not moralistic: Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals if you do the opposite of what Misoponos advised.”
“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”
“Virtues become vices when they are carried to an extreme.”
“There is the moral dualism that sees good and evil as instincts within us between which we must choose. But there is also what I will call pathological dualism that sees humanity itself as radically . . . divided into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad. You are either one or the other.”
“Taleb opens the book with a poetic image that should speak to all parents. He notes that wind extinguishes a candle but energizes a fire. He advises us not to be like candles and not to turn our children into candles: “You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.”
“In the age of social media, cyber trolls, and fake news, it is a national and global crisis that people so readily follow their feelings to embrace outlandish stories about their enemies. A community in which members hold one another accountable for using evidence to substantiate their assertions is a community that can, collectively, pursue truth in the age of outrage.”
“While it is easy to see how this way of thinking, when brought to a college campus, could lead to requests for safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression training, and bias response teams, it is difficult to see how this way of thinking could produce well-educated, bold, and open-minded college graduates.”
“I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.”
“Mobs can rob good people of their conscience, particularly when participants wear masks (in a real mob) or are hiding behind an alias or avatar (in an online mob). Anonymity fosters deindividuation—the loss of an individual sense of self—which lessens self-restraint and increases one’s willingness to go along with the mob.73”
About the Authors
Jonathan David Haidt
Jonathan David Haidt is an American social psychologist, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business and author. His main areas of study are the psychology of morality and moral emotions.
Haidt’s main scientific contributions come from the psychological field of moral foundations theory, which attempts to explain the evolutionary origins of human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, gut feelings rather than logical reason. The theory was later extended to explain the different moral reasoning and how they relate to political ideology, with different political orientations prioritizing different sets of morals. The research served as a foundation for future books on various topics.
Haidt has written three books for general audiences, including: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006) explores the relationship between ancient philosophies and modern science; The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) examines how morality is shaped by emotion and intuition more than by reasoning, and why differing political groups have different notions of right and wrong; and The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018), co-written with Greg Lukianoff, explores the rising political polarization and changing culture on college campuses, and its effects on mental health.
Haidt has attracted both support and criticism for his critique of the current state of universities and his interpretation of progressive values. He has been named one of the “top global thinkers” by Foreign Policy magazine, and one of the “top world thinkers” by Prospect magazine. He is among the most cited researchers in political and moral psychology, and is considered among the top 25 most influential living psychologists.
Gregory Christopher Lukianoff born in 1974 is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He previously served as FIRE’s first director of legal and public advocacy until he was appointed president in 2006.
Born in Manhattan, New York City, in 1974, Lukianoff is a graduate of American University and Stanford Law School.
Lukianoff has published articles in the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Atlantic, Inside Higher Ed, and the New York Post. His article in The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind” laid the groundwork for a nationwide discussion of whether or not trigger warnings are harming college health. He is a blogger for The Huffington Post. He is a co-author of FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus. He testified before the United States Congress on the state of free speech on college campuses, and he appeared in the films Brainwashing 101 and Indoctrinate U on the same topic. He has made numerous appearances on nationally syndicated television shows.