Review of The Coddling of the American Mind: A Book that is Well-Intentioned but Does Not Get at the Heart of the Problems that Plague Academia

September 2019

In recent years, many articles and books have been written to document issues pertaining to free speech at university campuses (e.g., deplatforming of speakers, open letters to journals to retract published articles). One recent book is 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 (Penguin Press, 2018).

The first section covers what the authors consider to be the three most important categories of bad ideas. The first is the notion of ideological safe spaces and, relatedly, the notion that challenging ideas can harm students. The second is that students are being taught to reason on the basis of their emotions or feelings, as opposed to a rational analysis of facts. The third is that students are taught about hierarchies of power that are derived when people are divided into categories based on immutable traits such as their gender (e.g., males are more powerful than females) or race (e.g., whites are more powerful than blacks), and the various combinations that arise when these traits are combined. By this notion, heterosexual conservative white males are considered to be at the top of the power hierarchy and are viewed as oppressors that need to have their power removed.

The second section covers the results that arise when these bad ideas are put into action, which includes many of the major controversies that have been covered in the mainstream media, such as the fiasco that occurred at Evergreen State College in the summer of 2017.

The third section attempts to cover the root causes of how we got to a stage where ideas can be viewed as personal threats. The sections cover polarization cycles; the increase in depression and anxiety that is being observed in adolescents and is likely attributable – at least in part – to the exposure that adolescents have to smart phones; parenting being more protective now than in the past; and a decline of unsupervised play at school, which has arisen in large part due to too much concern for the students’ safety. The remaining sections cover how the notion of safety has taken on a life of its own in which safety in our education system has resulted in large scale bureaucracies whose function is to keep students safe from ideas and how students are taught that injustices in the past are best addressed by taking power away from descendants of people who are presumed to have had power in the past.

The fourth section attempts to provide solutions, which involve undoing the mistakes that have been made in the past. For example, the authors advocate for children to have more time for unsupervised play.

In general, the book is well-written in the sense that it is easy to read and understand. As well, there are summaries at the end of each chapter that reiterate the major points made in each chapter. It is clear from reading the book that its intended audience is readers outside of academia. I think that the clarity of writing is the book’s greatest strength.

Unfortunately, I think that the book has a number of weaknesses. I will raise three of them.

The first one is that the fails to address what I think are the proverbial elephants in the room when it comes to how the current crisis on university campuses has arisen, which consists of the self-esteem movement that started roughly in the 1970s in which teachers stopped giving poor grades to students in the false belief that failing grades would hurt students’ self-esteem and, in turn, their mental health. Related to this issue is the notion that the curriculum in the elementary and high schools has been “dumbed down”. For example, reading comprehension and numeracy (ability to reason about numbers and probability) has been decreasing for years. Rather than cite a comprehensive list of sources here, I encourage readers to compare modern-day textbooks to those written in decades past.

Based on this evidence, I think that a fuller analysis would demonstrate that the situation for upcoming generations is particularly dire because they are not being taught the literacy skills that are required to process and analyze complex information, and that factor is made all the worse when they are also being taught that different points of view are to be interpreted as personal threats.

The second major problem in the book is that when it describes notions such as so-called “microagggressions”, the authors attempt to be conciliatory by stating how the notion was well-intentioned when it was coined, but they fail to explain that this concept is unfalsifiable. If students are being taught concepts that students believe cannot be disproven and are also taught to reason on the basis of emotions, then this is a recipe for disaster because students are not being taught how to discuss differences in viewpoints that allow for students with different points of view to have a better understanding of one another. Instead, I think that a strong argument can be made that teaching students to reason on the basis of ideology and emotion is a recipe for social unrest.

Based on the two criticisms that I have raised, I think that the third major problem with the book is that the solutions that are proposed in the last section of the book are too simplistic. While the book acknowledges that the political composition of the professoriate has changed dramatically since the later 1980s, the book does not emphasize that having a group of people who think the same way provides ideal conditions for extreme views to take hold. Once the ideas have taken hold, then they are very difficult to stop – especially after they have worked their way from universities into the elementary and high schools. The fact that this notion is barely explored is all the more surprising given that one of the authors (Jonathan Haidt) is a social psychologist.

Based on the criticisms I have raised, it is highly likely that that the problems within academia may not be solved by the solutions provided by the authors or by voices of dissent from within the academy. Rather, it may be the case that more drastic measures may be needed in which people from outside of academia demand that universities fix their own internal problems in order to earn the public’s trust. Unfortunately, the authors do not consider these possibilities.