A Crisis in Higher Education: Haidt and Lukianoff Present an Image of Hope
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Book Review: The Coddling of the American Mind

By Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

Penguin Press: $28 | 352 Pages

It’s free speech week, and the book to look out for is The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukinaoff and Jonathan Haidt. Our higher education system is out of whack. Students go in with skewed views of reality and education and come out even more misaligned than they went in. But, from where do these issues stem? In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt look at the lies we’ve been deluded by and provide meaningful advice to move in a more productive direction.

The book begins with the positing of three “Great Untruths.” These are bad advice on a cosmic scale, and when they are fed to young people, the result is the college culture we see today.

The first of these is “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.” All challenge is seen as a damaging threat, rather than as an opportunity to build skills and grow strong. This way of viewing oneself, and one’s has led to a culture wherein college students view ideas that oppose their world views as a form of violence against them. When words and ideas are viewed as a threat to physical safety, the purpose of the institution, to educate and challenge, is greatly eroded.

Haidt and Lukianoff point out that a better view is that young people are “anti-fragile”, that when they are challenged and questioned in the intellectual gym of the university, they grow stronger, and learn to handle more complex and discursive ideas. This concept of anti-fragility is important. It’s the intuition found in a growth mindset, people are capable of growing, and of improving to meet the challenges placed before them. If it’s assumed that everything that is difficult is destructive, growth stunts. Students who refuse to wrestle with important issues out of fear will experience the atrophy of their analytical skills.

The second untruth is “Always trust your feelings.” This idea can be incredibly damaging for obvious reasons. The failure to acknowledge objective reality, and instead live in a world of emotion,  factual understanding is skewed. If one feels under attack, they are. If they feel disrespect it has been given, if they feel unsafe because of ideas it is the same as being physically unsafe. Blindly believing what we feel as fact is destructive, and creates harmful mental models.

The third is “Life is a battle between good people and evil people.” This idea presents people as wholly good or wholly bad, as having evil intentions or not. But, this view fails to acknowledge the way morality and goodness really function. No person is all good or bad, there is some measure of both in all people, and assuming those with whom one disagrees acts in bad faith serves to generate an unfounded persecution complex.

To find the root of these three untruths, they look at the six interacting trends that have produced these ways of thinking:

Rising political polarization; rising rates of adolescent depression and anxiety; a shift to more fearful, protective, and intensive parenting in middle-class and wealthy families; widespread play deprivation and risk deprivation for members of iGen; an expanding campus bureaucracy taking an increasingly overprotective posture; and a rising passion for justice combined with a growing commitment to attaining “equal outcomes” in all areas.

These trends are explored in depth. Haidt and Lukianoff provide a well-rounded summation of the crisis in higher education, without ever becoming fatalistic about it. 

The book ends with real, concrete, actionable solutions for everyday people to take in order to make things better. That in and of itself is so unique and uplifting that it makes the book worth the read. The simplest, and most widely applicable solution that they offer is to give children more free and open play. Allow them the freedom to grow, explore, and err while they’re young, and many of the problems that appear later will be significantly abated. 

They suggest institutional solutions as well,  in order to combat this problem Universities should “Entwine [their] identity with freedom of Inquiry” by endorsing the Chicago Statement, a written commitment to freedom of speech and inquiry, and by creating a practice of not responding to the kinds of public outrage that have become commonplace in University culture. They also argue that schools should try to admit more older students who are more able to live independently, admit students from schools that focus on training in “intellectual virtues”, and include viewpoint diversity in their broader diversity policies. Taking these steps, they argue, will advance the Universities relationship to open inquiry and dialogue, and work to repair its toxic culture. They further suggest that we work in our daily lives to actively reject these untruths, view ourselves as anti-fragile, question the implicit biases of our feelings, and realize that life is not a battle between good people and evil people.

It is easy to identify the problems that afflict our institutions and culture, but where Haidt and Lukianoff set themselves apart from the pack is in offering substantive, actionable solutions, both for the academy and for the individual. This book provides a hopeful glimpse at what is possible if those who see the problems that exist in higher education and broader society step up and work toward the change they want to see, rather than allowing things to continue as they are.

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