Last month, a video went viral of students at UNT protesting Jeff Younger, a Republican Texas House of Representatives candidate who was there to speak about trans issues, by chanting “f*ck these fascists”, screaming, and banging on tables. Similarly, last week at the University of Buffalo, protests against Black conservative speaker Allen West spiraled out of control, ending up with the leader of the campus’s conservative political organization forced to hide in a bathroom for her safety.
These events are not isolated incidents; in the past few years, it has become relatively common to see large and occasionally violent protests on college campuses when controversial, usually right-wing, speakers are invited.
However, shouldn’t we be prioritizing free speech at institutions that are supposed to be bastions of knowledge and inquiry?
Obviously, nonviolent protests against ideological opponents are productive and important in a democracy such as ours, and if you believe a speaker is promoting hateful or incorrect ideas, you have a constitutional right and a moral imperative to protest them. However, your free speech rights end where someone else’s begin. Why are we seeing an increase in students attempting to shut down speech or intimidate opponents into silence?
And what about other recent trends regarding “bias response teams”, trigger warnings, and safe spaces? Why do people seem to believe that words they don’t like are equivalent to violence and a threat to their safety? Are those darn kids these days just too sensitive? Is this a real issue or is the right just exaggerating it to fan the flames of the culture war and generate more outrage about “the intolerant left”? And how does all this tie in to larger trends about Gen Z?
These are the questions that The Coddling of the American Mind attempts to answer.
About the Book
Title: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure
Authors: Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff
Genre: nonfiction, psychology, politics, sociology, philosophy, many things
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):
“A timely investigation into the campus assault on free speech and what it means for students, education, and our democracy.
The generation now coming of age has been taught three Great Untruths: their feelings are always right; they should avoid pain and discomfort; and they should look for faults in others and not themselves. These three Great Untruths are part of a larger philosophy that sees young people as fragile creatures who must be protected and supervised by adults. But despite the good intentions of the adults who impart them, the Great Untruths are harming kids by teaching them the opposite of ancient wisdom and the opposite of modern psychological findings on grit, growth, and antifragility. The result is rising rates of depression and anxiety, along with endless stories of college campuses torn apart by moralistic divisions and mutual recriminations.
This is a book about how we got here. First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt take us on a tour of the social trends stretching back to the 1980s that have produced the confusion and conflict on campus today, including the loss of unsupervised play time and the birth of social media, all during a time of rising political polarization.”
I finished this in a day, and I thought it was a pretty comprehensive analysis of… a broad range of topics.
First, the authors establish “Three Great Untruths” that they believe are being taught to students, implicitly and explicitly:
1) The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
2) The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings
and 3) The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people
The book then goes into an analysis of each of these “untruths” and how the authors believe they are manifesting in students’ lives, and various societal trends that they believe are contributing to the formation of these attitudes in Gen Z.
Some of these trends include the rise of social media, Trump’s election and increased visibility of the alt-right, parents not letting their kids play outside (yeah that one was a bit of a stretch), increased political polarization and political homogeneity on campus, volatile events in the 2010s (and as this book was published in 2018, all I could think while reading was “oh if you only knew what was coming”)
This book spends a long time analyzing campus protests in terms of social psychology and the political context that we have right now, which was very interesting to read. They offer a rebuttal as well to the idea that progressives should adopt the ideas of micro-aggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings, etc. and evaluate whether these are actually going to help the people whom they’re supposed to help.
It also is a call for universities to renew their commitments to free speech and ideological diversity in addition to cultural diversity. The proposed solutions weren’t terribly realistic but I don’t think this is a very easy problem to solve.
Overall, The Coddling of the American Mind was an intriguing read and I agreed with a lot of the stuff they said.
I would consider myself something of a free speech absolutist– with some exceptions, of course, like direct threats of violence– but I think free speech is one of the most important things in society, so I was interested in that aspect of the book. I’m definitely going to look more into some of the organizations referenced in the book, like FIRE, which defends free speech on campus.
Have you read The Coddling of the American Mind? Any similar books? Feel free to let me know in the comments!
If you liked this post, consider subscribing to Frappes & Fiction. I post about the books I read, the books I think YOU should read, and anything else on my mind.
(I’m also on social media!)