Book of the week
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure
“Every age seems to have its own cures for the previous generation’s supposedly poor child-rearing,” said Michael Roth in The Washington Post. In The Coddling of the American Mind, college kids once again are painted as spoiled whiners whose unreasonable demands represent an existential threat to Western civilization. This time, the young are spreading a plague that the authors label “safety-ism.” College students, we’re told, insist on being shielded from exposure to any words, acts, or ideas that could make them uncomfortable, and, to be fair, “the authors are right to push back hard against the cultivation of fragility and victimhood.” But villainizing students seems unjustified. It is possible that America has changed more than young people have, giving them greater cause for anxiety.
But the campus culture Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are talking about is “more like a religious cult than a political movement,” said Niall Ferguson in The Times (U.K.). Students refuse to be referred to by the pronouns “he” and “she”; they silence speakers they dislike by shouting them down; and they kneecap professors who stand up to them. If you teach at a university today, beware: “One ill-judged microaggression is all it takes to be accused of racism or sexism, harassment or full-blown rape.” Lukianoff and Haidt helpfully trace the hysteria to “three Great Untruths” that the new generation has been fed since preschool: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” “Always trust your feelings,” and “Life is a battle between good people and bad people.” That’s all spot-on. I only question why they’re optimistic that the disease can be cured.
In truth, the authors don’t give student dissidents enough credit, said Noah Berlatsky in PacificStandard.com. Many are bravely battling real injustices—standing up against sexual abuse or discredited race science—but Lukianoff, a First Amendment lawyer, and Haidt, a professor of social psychology, can see only the threat activists pose to professors and the campus status quo. Well, that, and the danger to democracy when people can’t speak or listen to one another in good faith, said Thomas Chatterton Williams in The New York Times. If we are going to end the hyperpolarization that plagues 2018 America, we are going to need an educated citizenry fluent in a new liberalism that seeks common ground. “If the American university is not the space to cultivate this strong and supple liberalism, then we are in deep and lasting trouble.” ■