Review of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

The Coddling of the American Mind book coverImagine that you want to start a fitness program to increase your strength and endurance and sign up at the local gym. Upon arrival, you notice that management has removed all of the weights, concerned that heavy weights can cause stress and injury. Instead, you are instructed to perform light body-weight exercises that you can already safely handle. As you go through the motions of exercise, progress is nonexistent and you’ll be entirely unprepared for any activities that might require greater strength and endurance.

Welcome to (some) modern universities, which engage in the intellectual equivalent of removing the weights from the gym by creating safe spaces, disinviting speakers, removing offensive material, and inhibiting free speech and inquiry that should be the staple of a college education. Attending a university with these policies to prepare for the challenges of the outside world is like training for a marathon in our weightless gym.

The analogy is apt because the human mind, like the musculoskeletal system, is antifragile. Whereas fragile systems break under pressure and resilient systems can withstand pressure without change, antifragile systems become stronger under pressure. If you want to enhance your physical strength, you have to lift progressively heavier weight; if you want to enhance your intellectual fortitude, you have to expose yourself to different and sometimes controversial or offensive ideas.

This is the topic Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt tackle in The Coddling of the American Mind. They frame the issue around the “three great untruths” that are promoted on some campuses across the US, which are creating an environment that not only blocks open inquiry and learning but that leads to polarization, emotional immaturity, fragility, violence, and mental illness.

The three untruths are 1) what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker, 2) always trust your feelings, and 3) life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three untruths, taken together, create a student body that is unreceptive to other viewpoints, dogmatic, easily offended, and self-righteous, eager to earn points within the group by calling out and ostracizing those with different views. The great untruths are damaging both socially and psychologically, and run counter to both the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (used to treat anxiety and depression) and ancient wisdom regarding well-being and happiness.

The great untruths therefore lead to the types of mental habits that our best therapy aims to eradicate, such as catastrophizing, emotional reasoning, overgeneralizing, dichotomous thinking, labeling, blaming, and negative filtering. Universities are encouraging, in other words, the very habits that lead to anxiety and depression and emotional stunting.

The authors dive deeply into these issues in the first two parts of the book and then describe the historical, social, psychological, and political reasons why we find ourselves in this situation. The fourth and final part of the book offers solutions, which I would summarize as follows.

The problems on campus can ultimately be solved by focusing on developing the virtues of intellectual courage, humility, and emotional resilience in our children and students. First, intellectual humility forces one to recognize that humans are fallible and prone to bias and error, both individually and collectively. Since we are often blind to our own errors, the only possibility of correcting our misjudgments is through exposure to competing ideas. As the authors put it, exposure to someone that disagrees with you is a gift. They can either change your mind, thus correcting your errors and biases, or else strengthen your own beliefs in the process of defending them.

The second virtue, intellectual courage, is the habit of pursuing the truth wherever it may lead and embracing the values of free speech and open inquiry. It’s the recognition that you may be wrong, that you may not have all of the answers, and that the development of your intellect depends on defending your ideas against competing views rather than shutting them down through force or violence.

The third virtue, emotional resilience, is the habit of handling adversity appropriately and taking control of your own emotions and reactions. Words are not violence, and being offended does not count as a point or an argument. This reminds me of three quotes by Christopher Hitchens that captures the spirit:

  • “If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, ‘I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.’”
  • “In this country, I’ve been told, ‘That’s offensive’ as if those two words constitute an argument or a comment.”
  • “Those who are determined to be ‘offended’ will discover a provocation somewhere. We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt.”

The best defense against false or immoral ideas is rigorous intellectual debate and criticism, and the censorship of ideas only makes those ideas more appealing to your opponents and to those who are never exposed to the proper criticisms. Shouting down a speaker is immature and intellectually and emotionally cowardly and has no place within a university. If you want to call yourself a liberal, you should have no problem winning the war of words with religious fundamentalists or racists without having to suppress their speech. Sticking with the Christopher Hitchens theme, can you imagine if, instead of engaging in dozens of debates with religious conservatives, he instead called for their speech to be suppressed? How much weaker and ineffective would his position have been?

As the authors point out, this is not happening at every university, and there is some debate as to whether or not this is as big of problem as it appears. In fact, it might not be; but it’s important to get out in front of the issue before it becomes a bigger problem. The authors cite some fairly egregious examples from a handful of universities, but also note that there are many exceptions. In particular, the University of Chicago remains a leader in free speech and inquiry and published the Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression, which every college student and parent should read. Over 40 institutions have adopted this policy, and hopefully more will follow suit.