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University challenge

Books | Is the heightened tension on American campuses evidence of more psychologically vulnerable students?

Nick Haslam 21 October 2018 2231 words

Is excessive screen time amplifying common psychological stresses? Alphotographic

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure
By Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt | Allen Lane | $49.99 | 352 pages

The authors of this important book are apologetic about its title. When they wrote the 2015 Atlantic article from which it grew, they proposed “Arguing Towards Misery: How Campuses Teach Cognitive Distortions,” but an editor with greater market awareness fastened on “coddling.” It’s a word that originally evoked warmth and comfort but whose current connotations are sure to stir heated argument. The article was widely read and highly controversial; Barack Obama referenced it approvingly in a speech. Three years later, “coddling” is still there in the title.

You can see why Greg Lukianoff, a free-speech lawyer, and Jon Haidt, a social psychologist, would be uneasy about the word. To refer to coddling when writing about today’s college students might seem to imply criticism of the students themselves — another instance of the intergenerational sniping about spoiled youth that has been with us since Socrates complained that “the children now love luxury… they contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannise their teachers.” But Lukianoff and Haidt primarily target academics, parents and the institutions they have prepared for the current generation of students. Theirs is not another attack on millennial “snowflakes”; it is more an attempt to tease apart the societal and cultural changes that have created young people who believe they are fragile and who have decided that a particular form of “vindictive protectiveness” is the armour they need.

Lukianoff and Haidt may have been queasy about their book’s title for another reason. It deliberately echoes an earlier critique of campus culture, Allan Bloom’s much-debated but little-read The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987. Bloom’s jeremiad took aim at relativist professors, political correctness, the coarseness and shallowness of youth culture and the decline of great books and classical music. A stern, moralising text, it was full of declinism and affirmations of the besieged Western tradition. Although some readers will reflexively slot this new book into Bloom’s mould, it is not fundamentally conservative, although it is certainly critical of some contemporary college mores.

Lukianoff and Haidt are both avowed Democrats, one a self-declared liberal and the other a centrist, and their target is not liberalism so much as a new illiberalism they identify in the campus left. On the surface, not much has changed since Closing became Coddling: we still have humanities departments thick with critical social theorists — fewer “tenured radicals” only because there is less tenure — and we still have the bitter arguments about speech codes and activist teaching. What has changed, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, are the grounds that student appeal to when expressing disapproval of offending views and their preferred means of dealing with the offenders.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I first met Jon Haidt in 1987, not long after Bloom’s book thundered onto the shelves, when we both entered graduate school in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. At the time Jon was an avid liberal who swiftly enlisted me to help out on Michael Dukakis’s doomed presidential campaign against Bush the first. Jon and I shared an office for several years while he conducted his soon-to-be-famous work on the psychology of disgust and the emotional grounding of moral judgement. Since that time, he has written two bestselling books, The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind, shaped the fields of moral and political psychology, and founded Heterodox Academy, an organisation that promotes political diversity on campus. Little did I know back then that I would be name-dropping him three decades later.

The problems that Lukianoff and Haidt wish to explain will be well known to anyone who has followed American universities for the past half-decade. At the extreme end are violent protests in response to challenging ideas. These include a student takeover of Evergreen State College in reaction to a biology academic who refused to leave the campus on a day white students and staff were asked to leave; riots in Berkeley occasioned by a speech by troll-provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos; a physical assault on an academic escorting The Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray from a speaking engagement at Middlebury College; and shocking denunciations of other academics at Yale and Claremont McKenna College whose well-meaning speech gave offence.

Often these events occurred during attempts to prevent invited speakers from speaking, a phenomenon that Lukianoff and Haidt show to have been ideologically balanced in previous decades but is now predominantly carried out by the left. Less extreme but much more common phenomena are the spread of what Lukianoff and Haidt take to be dangerous ways of accommodating student sensitivities, such as the designation of “safe spaces” where they can go to be away from undesired experiences or people, the use of “trigger warnings” to announce that potentially discomfiting material is about to be presented in class, and the rise of training programs to identify “microaggressions,” subtle expressions of supposed prejudice — such as asking an Asian student where she is from, or declaring America to be the land of opportunity — and call out the perpetrators.

Such are the symptoms of the new campus disorder, but what is the underlying pathology? According to Lukianoff and Haidt it is the rising prominence of three “Great Untruths.” There is the Untruth of Fragility (“what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”), the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning (“always trust your feelings”) and the Untruth of Us versus Them (“life is a battle between good people and evil people”).

Before turning to its analysis of the social trends that have generated these damaging beliefs, the book unpicks each of them. The widespread belief in fragility is ascribed to a rising culture of “safetyism” that overvalues comfort, inflates risk and demands protection from bothersome ideas. A better belief, say the authors, is anti-fragility: just as muscles need resistance to grow, personal development requires challenge and difficulty rather than softness and enablement. The excessive reliance on subjective feelings reflects a new focus on emotional impact rather than intention when apportioning blame: it is enough that someone feels offended or traumatised to punish the perpetrator, whether or not they meant harm. The belief in a world divided between good and evil people is driven by theories of power and privilege that license dichotomous thinking about victims and oppressors; it is also associated with a tribal form of identity politics and the apparent embrace of virtuous victimhood that sometimes accompanies it. Lukianoff and Haidt are not opposed to identity-based politics in principle but take issue with forms that undermine a sense of common ground and humanity across group boundaries.

Running through these three untruths is a conviction that today’s students are thinking about familiar concepts in unfamiliar ways. Safety was once understood as protection from physical harm but is now invoked in relation to harmful ideas or emotions. Trauma used to refer to life-threatening adversities but is now used to describe encounters with offending words. Speech can now be violence and right-wing ideologies that were once seen as extreme are now redefined as permeating the political spectrum. In the words of one student chant reported in the book, “liberalism is white supremacy.”

Here the authors cite my own work on “concept creep,” which documents how definitions of harm-related ideas in the social sciences — for example, bullying, prejudice and mental illness — have steadily expanded to include a progressively wider range of experiences and actions. As the concepts inflate, they identify more and more experiences as harmful and more and more people as harmed or harming. Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that emotional fragility, efforts to exclude controversial guest speakers and a readiness to take fierce offence at clumsy turns of phrase might all ultimately result from creeping concepts. Expansive definitions of harm may undermine not only personal resilience but also interpersonal civility.

The bulk of the book examines social trends that may have contributed to the current fractious state of American colleges. Any satisfactory explanation of the coddling phenomenon must reckon with its relatively sudden appearance, but most of the six contributing factors that Lukianoff and Haidt identify do not. One is the rising political polarisation in the United States, another is the rise of student-centred college bureaucracies with their well-intended behaviour codes and awareness-raising social programs, and a third is the growing tendency for an increasingly liberal professoriate to present unequal social outcomes as direct evidence of injustice and prejudice.

A more surprising pair of factors addressed at length are “paranoid parenting” and the decline of free play among school-aged children. The former is driven by exaggerated parental concerns about threats, the resulting over-protection and “helicoptering” impeding the development of independence. The latter partly reflects a parenting philosophy of talent cultivation, supported by an excessive focus on skill development in schools. Students become over-scheduled, often in the service of a “résumé arms race” to enhance applications to the best colleges.

But the factor that gets the most airplay, and the only one that can perhaps account for the timing of the changes on campus, is the use of smartphones. Relying on the work of psychologist Jean Twenge, Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that social media immersion and excessive screen time from a young age amplify common adolescent concerns surrounding peer exclusion and body image. One outcome is increasing rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide among young people, especially, the authors claim contentiously, since about 2010. The heightened tensions on campus from around 2013 might be manifestations of a more psychologically vulnerable student body, especially one jostled by the political turbulence of Trump, Black Lives Matter, Charlottesville and now #MeToo.

Lukianoff and Haidt offer several prescriptions to treat the pathology of coddling. Some are directed to parents and school systems. Children should become more free-range, with less adult supervision. Parents should encourage greater autonomy (but limit screen time), show how to engage in respectful disagreement and how to be charitable in dealing with opponents, and challenge distorted emotional reasoning. Schools should give more time to play and less to homework and the single-minded pursuit of academic success. Universities should demonstrate a genuine commitment to freedom of speech and inquiry and allow protest only when it does not prevent unpopular views from being heard. They should reject the great untruths and the encroachment of safetyism, and actively support viewpoint diversity and civil debate.

Some of these proposals are idealistic, swimming against the rip-tide of ongoing societal changes, but many are refreshingly concrete and actionable.

A key question for Australian readers is whether the book’s arguments are germane to our young people, our polity and our universities. The answer is mixed, but perhaps more yes for our youth and no for our institutions of government and higher learning. It is unquestionably true that many of the cultural trends that Lukianoff and Haidt observe are global rather than uniquely North American. Our children are less physically active than their parents were, spend much more time transfixed by screens, and seem to be afflicted with higher rates of depression and anxiety, although some of the alarmist figures drawn from local surveys are unreliable. Social media is just as much a preoccupation here as in the United States, and online mobbing is no stranger to our digital shores. Indeed, some of the societal changes that feed the generational predicament that Lukianoff and Haidt document are deeply familiar.

In other respects, however, their work resonates less powerfully. Our politics may be rather dire, but they rarely reach the Manichean levels of polarisation that have become entrenched in Trump’s America. Our racial divides are not as inflamed. Our campuses witness the occasional protest when a speaker presents a contrary view on a topic du jour, but these events have yet to spark the anarchic violence of Berkeley or Evergreen. Political diversity among Australian academics is probably similar to our American peers but our ideological differences rarely become a focus of public conflict. Trigger warnings have not caught on widely among lecturers and “microaggression” has not entered most students’ vocabularies.

Meanwhile, the one-dimensionally academic basis for selection into most Australian university courses arguably works against over-involved parenting. Many American parents engage in fevered curation of extracurricular activities to give their children the best shot at the most prestigious colleges, which want evidence of sporting prowess and civic-mindedness as well as sky-high grades. And for Australian students, who generally commute to university from the suburbs and work off campus, higher education is a less total and encompassing experience than it is for students living at America’s elite colleges, where most of the well-publicised campus conflicts have taken place. In a less hothouse environment, the more disturbing dynamics that Lukianoff and Haidt document are perhaps less likely to flower.

And yet we shouldn’t be surprised if the sorts of campus conflict that motivated this book emerge here, perhaps as suddenly as they did in the United States. American trends have a way of becoming ours at a lag. British universities are experiencing their own version of safetyism and the no-platforming of unpopular speech. Campus culture is showing signs of change, especially around the salutary goal of increasing respect and reducing harassment and other forms of maltreatment. Lukianoff and Haidt would not object to that goal, but their book reminds us that some of the means taken to achieve it have a way of transforming into something darker. •