In what is perhaps one of the most insightful diagnoses of an entire American generation, Coddling of the American Mind exposes how the well-intentioned decisions of protective parents have created a society that is uncomfortable not just with experiences, but with ideas. I was exposed to this outstanding book by my friend and one of its authors, Prof. Jonathan Haidt, who is presently at NYU’s Stern School.
I find this book to be the most influential book regarding the contemporary American psyche, and I saw in this book an expose of a generation that I myself belong to, but an expose that resonates even more loudly with the Gen Z that is currently on college campuses.
The main argument of Coddling, and a very persuasive one, I might add, is that an American culture of overprotection is disorienting and misguiding young people, and that the gratuitous use of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” does them more harm than good. The subtext of the book, “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” bears out the problem plainly.
Because of the bubble-formation of safe spaces on university campuses, students are no longer exposed to worldviews different from their own. They are no longer just averse to experiences, but instead averse to any exposure to paradigms outside their own. This is, of course, quite the opposite of the spirit that universities have avowed for centuries. I find that the authors do an excellent job of depicting how this culture evolved over the past three decades.
A telling example from the book regards peanut allergies, which are as much a reflection of social behavior as they are a physiological crisis. Parents worried about the risk of exposure to a nut have raised their children in excessively sterilised environments, which has neutered their immune systems to the point that peanut allergies really can be fatal. A self-fulfilling prophecy then underlies the psyche of the coddled society.
Yet the underlying worry that the authors really aim to discuss is that, down the road, coddled generations will find everything offensive except for a narrow range of blandly neutral and “safe” topics. Worse still, there will be far greater political and social polarization because of it. In that sense, the book echoes the worry made in 1987 within the pages of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, which has come to be prophetic in its warnings of cultural distortion.
However, Lukianoff and Haidt are optimistic that a heterodox academy shall emerge that will “develop a different sort of academic culture—one that finds ways to make students from all identity groups feel welcome without using the divisive methods.”
Among their recommendations for remedies to the stifling safety-ism of society, I appreciate that they implore young people to be more charitable towards the viewpoints of others instead of assuming that they intended offense. There is far too much offense being taken and it is leading to undue hostility in society. In reading this book, I see perhaps the most piercing critique of how the American psyche is evolving and, without remedial collective action, “setting up a generation for failure” as the book puts it.
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Hardcover – September 4, 2018. by Greg Lukianoff (Author), Jonathan Haidt (Author)
Available on Amazon.
This is part of a series of book reviews by Dr Aron Ping D’Souza.