“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, New York, 2018.

What happens on campus does not stay on campus. The sharp increase in student sensitivity to perceived danger, the increasingly tribal us-vs.-them mentality, the intolerance of words and ideas, the tendency to catastrophize and the rapid rise in anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide attempts are problems for colleges and problems for the rest of us. Whatever’s happening to our youth at this moment in time needs to be understood and addressed.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt noticed an extreme uptick in the misapprehension of dangers on campus in the last few years. They questioned why this sudden intolerance and why now. Their work in First Amendment protections and social psychology, respectively, gave them the interest, tools and experience needed to investigate further. They consulted authors of recent books that explored facets of the problem. They looked at new research and existing data. They conducted their own interviews. And they produced “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” They wrote the book in response to their 2015 Atlantic magazine article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which is one of the top five most viewed articles on the magazine’s website.

For a study of social issues that includes charts, appendices, footnotes and references, this book is, nonetheless, readable for anyone with an interest in what’s happening not just on campus but in our communities. The authors create an environment of care and concern against a backdrop of urgency. They take pains to explain what they will be talking about in each chapter and they summarize their key points at the end of each chapter. They deliver loads of references, including websites, smartphone apps and literature from all times and disciplines. And at the end, they present actions that can be implemented almost immediately. Lukianoff, who suffered an extreme episode of anxiety and depression, also brings in the practice of cognitive behavioral techniques (and therapy, if appropriate). CBT, the authors write, is an excellent tool for people who want to tone down the anxiety, worry and tendency to catastrophize. They include an appendix titled “How to do CBT.”

The authors start with three key fallacies: You can trust your feelings; there are good and bad people; adversity will weaken you. They contend, and go on to argue, the inaccuracy of these beliefs. And early on they relate the details of an incident at Brown University in March 2015 that exemplifies current trends. Two feminists were scheduled to debate the existence of a rape culture in this country. Students objected vociferously. They said the debate could invalidate some of their personal experiences and, thereby, cause them great harm. The administration therefore scheduled another non-controversial talk at the same time. They and the student body also set up a safe space for those whose anxieties were triggered by the debate. The safe space included cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, a video of playful puppies and trained professionals to deal with the traumatized. Many were incredulous. The authors questioned why, on college campuses established for the purpose of exploration of ideas, ideas and words were now considered harmful. This new culture of safetyism presents real dangers for critical thinking, accurate problem-solving and the skills needed for day-to-day living.

The authors go on to present additional anecdotes similarly disturbing. Some include acts of violence and many have led to the dismissal of professors who happened to say or write the wrong thing. Students have behaved with extreme anger and hostility, so much so that other faculty and administrators, no matter how personally supportive, withheld public support. Almost all of those inadvertently caught in the vicious vortex were fired or quit.

Social media plays a role, of course, with its special knack for gathering like kind into self-referential cohorts. Today’s college students tend to blame and they are less likely to question their own culpability or understanding of the issues. Young women are more affected by social media because of their need for inclusion, thus leading to the greater numbers of college women afflicted with serious depression.

The problems start at home and within our social norms. The culture of fear, something written about at great lengths at this time, has ramped up parental involvement in every aspect of their children’s lives. The authors use the widespread allergy to peanuts as a metaphor for what’s happening. As many know by now, the immune system requires exposure to allergens to do its job and develop resistance. Studies now show that those exposed to peanuts from birth are far less likely to be allergic. Antifragile systems like the immune system become rigid, weak and inefficient, write the authors, when challenges are removed. They require stressors in order to function well. Lukianoff and Haidt say that children are also antifragile systems. Like their muscle and bone, they must be subjected to a raft of life experiences including problems and play and even adversity in order to achieve peak functioning. Parents, especially the more economically stable parents, do the opposite. They overprotect. And kids, therefore, enter college today less ready and less developed. It follows, therefore, that problems become threats. The authors go on to say that these threats are perceived as physical harm.

To counter this urgent problem, the authors offer solutions. Keep screen time under two hours, join the family together to learn cognitive behavioral techniques, consider taking a gap year between high school and college to engage in public service, take debate classes and practice mindfulness.

This book is brimming with ideas and advice, with links to more. It is controversial for some, a source of hope for others. Although the authors tend to view unrealistic fears like kidnapping as the main reasons for why parents have become so overprotective, they could better acknowledge the current pall of gloom and doom this country is groping its way through at the moment. There are real fears. But, as the authors so ably show, campuses are where we encounter worlds of ideas and sources of creativity. We must deal with our fears if we are to grow and prosper.
Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at Rae@RaeFrancoeur.com.