Sean Stevens is Heterodox Academy’s Research Director. He has a PhD in social psychology from Rutgers University.
The origin of The Coddling of the American Mind occurred over lunch in May of 2014, with Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in attendance. Lukianoff had asked Haidt to help him make sense of a puzzle he had noticed emerging over the past year or two. Historically, students had consistently opposed administrative calls for campus censorship, yet recently Lukianoff was encountering more demands for campus censorship, from the students.
Lukianoff’s biggest concern was that the rationale for justifying increased campus censorship was becoming medicalized, with students claiming that encountering certain kinds of content impaired their ability to function. Stated simply, Lukianoff’s hypothesis was: “Many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.”
Initially, what emerged from this lunch was an article, published in The Atlantic on August 11, 2015, titled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Lukianoff and Haidt have “always been ambivalent” about the title (writers typically don’t choose the headlines in major outlets). As they put it:
Young people today – at a minimum, those who are competing for places at selective colleges – are under enormous pressure to perform academically and to build up a long list of extracurricular accomplishments. Meanwhile, all teens face new forms of harassment, insult, and social competition from social media. Their economic prospects are uncertain in an economy being reshaped by globalization, automation, and artificial intelligence, and characterized by wage stagnation for most workers. So most kids don’t have easy, pampered childhoods (p. 13).
Nonetheless, Lukanoff and Haidt’s new book ultimately ended up adopting the title of their blockbuster article — and represents an expansion on its arguments and themes.
In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure, Lukanoff and Haidt contend that the emergence of a culture of “safetyism” has produced institutional practices that overreach in their goals of protecting children from harm. This, they argue, is a “problem of progress” — an unfortunate side-effect of what are otherwise positive social changes: In American society, the level of comfort and physical safety of most, if not all, people has increased exponentially, when compared to even the recent past. Yet, these advances have also produced institutional practices that, in our contemporary milieu, undermine our ability to solve important social problems.
Part I of The Coddling of the American Mind devotes an individual chapter to each of three Great Untruths. Key concepts of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are also introduced. Part II provides evidence of the consequences of believing in the three Great Untruths, by reviewing a variety of events that have occurred on college campuses and within the academy in recent years. Part III offers six explanatory threads for how the culture of safetyism emerged and documents some of the consequences for broader society that may be arising as a result. Part IV offers suggestions for preventing the spread of the three Great Untruths and combatting their existing prevalence. Click on each section title for a more detailed description:
The importance of the university to a functioning democracy cannot be overstated. This is why Lukianoff and Haidt use The Coddling of the American Mind to raise concerns about the direction American universities have been taken. They are not presented as a means to demonize the university, its administrators, its faculty members, nor (and perhaps most importantly) its students. Again, it is their contention that universities are not the source of the problem — they just happen to be arenas where unfortunate interactions of the social changes they describe are among the most likely to manifest, to get attention, and to generate significant second-order effects.
However, for this very reason, universities can also play an important role in addressing our society’s “problems of progress” by pushing back against safetyism and the “Three Great Untruths.”
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