Opinion: Daily Journal

Universities and the ‘coddling’ of the American mind 

In 2015, Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University, wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” In that article, the authors argued that students increasingly react to words, books, images, and speakers with fear and anger because they’ve been taught to exaggerate danger, to let their emotions rule, and to engage in binary thinking. 

It proved to be one of the most read and discussed articles ever published by the magazine. 

Now Lukianoff and Haidt have expanded on that article with a book entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure.” Their book has a lot to say about the way our colleges and universities are making a bad situation — the bad mental habits noted above combined with the belief that kids must be kept absolutely safe — much worse. 

The root of the problem, argue Lukianoff and Haidt, is that parents, teachers, professors, and college administrators have been leading young people to believe Three Great Untruths. 

The first of those is the Untruth of Fragility. That is the idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker, and therefore young people must be protected against everything from a stray peanut to hearing any “hateful” ideas. 

The second great untruth is that you should trust and follow your emotions. Emotions frequently get in the way of sound reasoning, but young people are often told that because they feel that something is true, then it really is true. 

And third is the Us Versus Them Untruth — the erroneous view that the world is divided into good people and evil people. Once that mentality soaks in, there’s no need for dialogue or debate since everything the other side might say will be lies and propaganda. 

Lukianoff and Haidt point out that those untruths don’t originate on college campuses. They begin and are nurtured from early life on through high school. Unfortunately, when students get to college, which ought to be an environment where people face and deal with ideas that they find offensive, shocking, or even hostile, they instead find reinforcement for the Great Untruths.  

Those bad mental habits are not just “setting up a generation for failure,” but are sowing the seeds of bitter social strife in the future. What should college leaders do to reverse course? Lukianoff and Haidt have a number of good suggestions. 

First, they should endorse free speech on campus. I would suggest that instead of devoting orientation sessions to divisive talk about group oppression and privilege, colleges spend the time explaining why free speech is so important. 

Second, they must never allow students to wield the “heckler’s veto.” In case the teaching about free speech doesn’t take hold, students need to understand that serious consequences will follow if they try to prevent people from speaking. 

Third, schools should strive for more viewpoint diversity in their hiring. Scholars get sloppy if no one pushes back against their ideas, but that’s the case in many departments. 

Fourth, schools should “educate for productive disagreement.” That is, they should make sure that students see demonstrations of rational disagreement between reasonable people. One way to do that is to set up campus debates. 

“The Coddling of the American Mind” deserves a wide readership and vigorous discussion about how we are miseducating our youth. College leaders won’t like much of what it says because they have a lot to answer for. 

George Leef is director of editorial content for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.