Review – The Coddling of the American Mind

by Ken Bendiksen, written for Professor Margarita Mooney Suarez’s course, Christianity and the Liberal Arts, at Princeton Theological Seminary

“This is a book about good intentions gone awry” (Lukianoff and Haidt 126).[1] This remarkable book by Greg Lukianoff, a First Amendment lawyer, and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, speaks with great applicability and timeliness about issues encountered both on university campuses and in contemporary American society at large. The issues range from increased rates of anxiety and depression, to the growing tendency of student groups to employ violent means in silencing speakers they disagree with, to a sharp rise in polarization along political party lines. Lukianoff and Haidt (henceforth L&H) identify and winningly argue for the causality of these phenomena as stemming from the legitimization of specific cognitive distortions.

Haidt is expertly familiar with these through his professional work, while Lukianoff has encountered them first-hand during cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) he has undergone for depression (7). Behind these cognitive distortions stand what Lukianoff and Haidt refer to as the “three Great Untruths,” which result in a “culture of safetyism”[2] that arises when these Untruths are put into practice (85). Members of, or advocates for, the social movements whose actions L&H criticize—Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and proponents of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” to name a few—might find themselves challenged to read this book and encounter it with an open ear.

The very cognitive distortions L&H seek to address make such a self-analysis difficult. But the enduring value of The Coddling of the American Mind is that it is written not against specific people or movements, but for a nation. It delineates and qualifies harmful social practices, points to their causes, and shows their effects. The manner in which L&H engage with these controversial, touchstone issues is sensitive while maintaining a professional detachment. By remaining dispassionate in their argumentation and concerned for general welfare across lines of identity and allegiance, L&H offer a convincing explanation for prevalent modern social ills along with wisdom for where we, as a country, might go from here to remedy them.

The authors make it their objective first to identify the “three Great Untruths” in Part I, second to demonstrate the consequences of those ideas’ proliferation using high-profile “case studies” and public incidents in Part II, third to demarcate the course that American culture has taken to arrive at its present situation in Part III, and finally, in Part IV, to offer concrete, implementable advice to reverse these harmful trends—with lessons offered for both parents and educators. L&H define the three criteria for something to be a Great Untruth as follows: it must contradict ancient wisdom across many cultures; it must contradict modern psychological research on well-being; and it must harm the individual and communities who embrace it (4). To each of these Untruths the authors devote an entire chapter. What follows will comprise a summary of each classification along with a critical example or illustration.

The three Untruths are those of Fragility, Emotional Reasoning, and Us Versus Them mentality (4). L&H amusingly and strikingly introduce these concepts through a fake “origin story” for the book, claiming that they made a pilgrimage to an imagined guru in Greece, one Misoponos,[3] in search some useful aphorisms to live by, only to find that the supposed guru’s words directly contradicted what both of them have found to be true in their professional and personal lives. Encountered through the absurd fictional character of Misoponos, these beliefs appear ridiculous; but L&H soon set about showing how dominant they are in academia today.

The first of them, the Untruth of Fragility, has increasingly been the root cause of student groups calling for “triggering” material to be shunned in academic settings, and of controversial speakers being disinvited from campuses (or shouted down if their invitations are upheld). While such activism is not new, L&H note a concerning shift in recent years in justification for these reactions to course materials and to speakers: “The rationale for speech codes and speaker disinvitations was becoming medicalized. […] Students claimed that certain kinds of speech—and even the content of some books and courses—interfered with their ability to function” (6). As a counterexample, L&H mention the “canon wars” (which we, as a class, discussed more than once in our seminar) during which student activists sought to revise required reading lists that included predominantly “dead white males;” yet “those efforts were not driven by health concerns… [T]hey were not saying that members of the school community would be harmed by…exposure to ideas” (7).

This fundamental Untruth, that students are fragile and therefore must be protected from potentially harmful ideas, goes harshly against the grain of modern psychological practice. First we must define terms: fragile for L&H may be thought of as a china teacup (prone to breaking when dropped); resilient may be thought of as a toddler’s plastic cup (resistant to breakage when dropped, but not inherently improved by being repeatedly dropped); helpfully, L&H introduce a third concept, one that they assert most accurately describes the human immune system and the mind: both possess an antifragile quality. Like muscles and bones, our emotional resilience requires “stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt and grow” (23). And like muscles and bones, they will atrophy or weaken when deprived of such exposure. By way of example, L&H cite an occurrence that is shockingly physical and easily recognized: the rise of peanut allergies in children. L&H point to research that concludes, “peanut allergies were surging precisely because parents and teachers had started protecting children from exposure to peanuts back in the 1990s” (20).

Similarly, the unfounded categorization of the human psyche as fragile has led to a culture of emotional safetyism. This, in turn, gives rise to “concept creep” and the “expansion of ‘safety’ to include emotional comfort” (26). L&H offer the example of students at Brown University who felt “in danger” due to the presence of a feminist speaker on campus asserting that America is not, in fact a rape culture. This was Wendy McElroy, a woman who “has firsthand experience of sexual violence: she told the audience at Brown that she was brutally raped as a teenager, and as an adult she was so badly beaten by a boyfriend that it left her blind in one eye” (27). The juxtapositions here are salient: the actual scars McElroy carries when compared with the supposed “emotional pain” students might experience due to her presence; her actual status as victim versus the role of oppressor assumed and projected onto her by students because she did not grant their desired level of emotional and that seeks to classify words as violence on a level with the manifestly physical acts of violence she endured; her harrowing lived experience yet disenfranchised speech may be compared with an enforced speech code of topic avoidance for the sake of potential, even hypothetical victims. The monumental ironies here resist all attempts at rationalization.

We pause briefly to note L&H’s masterful response to phenomena such as this, a response which again demonstrates their emphasis on working toward understanding our societal distortions and seeking solutions even in the face of supreme irrationality. They point out that avoidance of triggers such as was seen at Brown is a symptom of PTSD, not a treatment for it, and that “cognitive behavioral therapists treat trauma patients by exposing them to the things they find upsetting… A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy” (29). When L&H denounce a practice, they do so as professionals concerned for human life.

The second great Untruth is that of “emotional reasoning: always trust your feelings” (33). L&H call this a kind of “feedback loop” or confirmation bias, pointing out that while it is nothing new, neither is the most dependable solution to it (34).[4] Breaking this feedback loop and “gently correct[ing]” the cognitive distortions it engenders are, in fact, the essence of modern cognitive behavioral therapy. Strikingly, L&H draw a parallel CBT’s goals and those of scholarship itself: critical thinking lies at the heart of both processes, “a commitment to connect one’s claims to reliable evidence in a proper way” (39). Synthesizing moments like these are when L&H’s book truly shines in my evaluation.

The greatest boundary to subjecting one’s conclusions to critical thinking lies in a particular cognitive distortion that emotional reasoning may lead to, namely “mind reading” or assuming the worst about people and then “reading their actions [or words] as uncharitably as possible” (41). By defining insults “entirely in terms of the listener’s interpretation,” and by choosing to interpret an opponent’s statement in the worst light, “microaggressions” end up ignoring the intent of the speaker, focusing only on their perceived impact and mischaracterizing many actions as “aggressive.” Yet such actions lack intent, the very component necessary for them to exhibit aggression (40). Systematic perpetuation of this hair-trigger readiness to be offended, to see the other person in the worst possible light, sets the stage for catastrophe: universities teach students to ignore intention, to readily seek out offense, and encourage labeling of anyone acting subjectively offensive as “aggressors,” thereby “fostering feelings of victimization, anger, and hopelessness in [their] students… If someone wanted to create an environment of perpetual anger and intergroup conflict, this would be an effective way to do it” (47).

L&H conclude the chapter by pointing out that such an environment stands in direct opposition to the purpose of education. Socrates called himself the “gadfly” of the Athenian people precisely because he found ways of making them challenge their beliefs (49). Without exposure to different viewpoints to spur on critical thinking, some institutions end up prioritizing comfort over reflective thought.

The third Untruth is that “life is a battle between good people and evil people” (53). This Untruth may be summarized rather quickly: the human brain has evolved in such a way as to readily resort to “pathological dualism,” even in instances when we might not be conscious of doing so. We construct narratives of “us” and “them,” often along arbitrary lines,[5] because they appeal to an instinct toward tribalism which remains from time immemorial and which has helped humans survive and prosper (58). While “conditions of peace and prosperity…generally turn down [this] tribalism” instinct in us, “any kind of intergroup conflict (real or perceived)” turns it back up (59). This is why, L&H claim, training students to think about themselves and others as belonging to “distinct groups defined by race, gender, and other socially significant factors” and then repeating narratives of these groups as being engaged in a “zero-sum conflict over status and resources” paves the way for disastrous clashes that appeal to emotion over reason (59).

L&H do qualify this statement, noting that identity politics organized around “party, ideology, or pecuniary interest” may in fact be a normal part of American political practices (59). However, they delineate between the “common-humanity identity politics” epitomized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who emphasized shared humanity and commonality to reach out to his opponents in love, and the “common-enemy identity politics” espoused by Marxist approaches to social and political analysis, by Marcuse, and by the modern Marcuseans who favor an approach of intersectionality (60; 64; 67).[6] The final goal of a Marcusean worldview is revolution: “not equality[,] but a reversal of power” (66). Yet the goal of the academic institution should be quite the opposite, “to create welcoming, inclusive communities,” not “hyperactivating our ancient tribal tendencies” (70). This harmful practice, feeding into call-out culture and exacerbated by social media, results instead in a culture that is “antithetical to the mission of a university” (70-71).

What follows in Part II of The Coddling of the American Mind is a cataloging of instances in which treating speech as violence and perpetuating the cognitive distortions described in Part I has resulted in actual violence being perpetrated on college campuses. L&H attempt to make sense of these occurrences by framing them conceptually as akin to the witch hunts of Europe and the Massachusetts Puritans in the fifteenth thru seventeenth centuries and, the Red Guard of Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” in 1966-1969 (99-101). They present four common criteria among these recent occurrences, the most striking of which is that onlookers often experience sympathy with the accused but fear speaking up (as in the Yale Halloween incident they mention) (102, 57). Overwhelmingly, even in circumstances where a “backstory” might perpetuate some of the students’ concerns, the individuals who end up lambasted as evil share no connection with that backstory (57). The word “violence” becomes expanded to include words themselves, then the targeted individual’s words become categorized as actual violence so that violent, physical retribution may be legitimized against them.

“The rationale…is that physically violent actions, if used to shut down speech that is deemed hateful, are ‘not acts of violence’ but, rather, ‘acts of self defense’” (86). Such rationalization may seem absurd when viewed from a distance; but L&H point out that within “cohesive and morally homogenous groups,” healthy perspective is quickly lost, “particularly when they experience a threat” (120). They link the rise of such “groupthink” with the loss of viewpoint diversity in political thought among faculty and students at American universities since the 1990s, meaning the culture of academia is susceptible to a witch hunt mentality now more than ever (121).

Part III attempts to trace how we arrived at this conundrum. L&H identify six explanations. I will offer one for example here: briefly, one of the driving forces that perpetuates the current crisis may be referred to as the “polarization cycle” in the media, whereby a left-wing professor shares an initial provocative comment; right-wing detractors then use the media to amplify outrage against the professor; the university usually fails to defend them; the professor receives hate speech or even death threats; and ultimately, partisans on both sides have their worst fears about the other side confirmed and further entrenched (137). Other explanatory factors include anxiety and depression, paranoid parenting, the decline of unsupervised play, the bureaucracy of safetyism, and an unhealthy obsession with “the quest for justice[7]” (213).

For the sake of this book review’s length, I will briefly speak to L&H’s advice for children, universities, and societies. To raise “wiser kids,” inculcate antifragility in them. “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child;” give them less homework and more unsupervised play (237, 249). For universities: foster academic freedom and pursue the “telos of truth” (262). For societies: resist the three Great Untruths (…and social media!).

The prescience and broad applicability of these conclusions cannot be overestimated. They are the distillation of a careful, thoughtful line of reasoning and they intersect with other authors we’ve read. As I read through L&H’s desire to impart wisdom to a young generation through greater autonomy that then leads to resiliency, I was struck by a similar moment in Maritain’s Education at the Crossroads, when he seeks to balance honoring and recognizing that “the principal agent” in a child’s education is their “inner dynamism of nature and of the mind” with a resistance to the “mere cult of freedom of the child” under no restraints at all.[8] I reflected, as well, on Giussani’s The Risk of Education in which he frames Catholic tradition and authority as an ideal framework for providing youth with the facts for a hypothesis that they can then go on to judge through their life experience. But Lukianoff and Haidt make no such specific appeal to one ideological agendum. Instead, the timbre of their work reflects the unifying power of that same type of common-humanity identity politics that they lift up as admirable. The book points to humility, charity, research-backed behavioral therapy, and reform in our schools and higher education system as medicines for our society’s ailments. It is an outstandingly well-researched and annotated effort, marked by a devotion to the pursuit of human flourishing that runs through the whole tone of the book.

This devotion, combined with scholarly excellence in presenting their viewpoints and conclusions, embodies exactly the type of work that must be done on campuses to meaningfully contribute towards bringing our society together again. In that sense, they accomplish their own stated objectives of grounding their positions and evidencing them using critical thinking to great effect. Through their own impartiality the authors demonstrate a resistance to the “great Untruths” that they denounce. The book’s chief strengths are its dispassionate argumentation, its simplicity and approachability for almost any adult reader, and the clarify with which the authors lay out the road map of their own organizational structure. Their use of evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, is compelling and comprises magnitudes more detailed observation than the space of this book review can do justice (see especially their treatment of the incidents at Yale and Evergreen).

Though the subject matter is more contemporary and only relates tangentially to the other authors on our class syllabus, I would not hesitate to assign this book for a class on Christianity and the Liberal Arts for one simple reason: it wrestles with the same fundamental issues of engagement, dialogue, outrage, and cognitive distortion that any Christian who intends to work in academia will inevitably come face to face with. In my opening, I remarked that the book is written more like a clinical diagnosis with an added prescription than anything else. I thank God that it is not, as of yet, an autopsy of American society. May our understanding of these issues and our intentionality, motivated by selfless love, move us further in the direction of a cure for the chronic issues that this book depicts with great insight and discernment.

[1] This brief remark is nestled halfway between its covers, thrown in almost as an aside, but which perhaps constitutes the key to understanding its authors’ overarching motivations.

[2] See p. 73. In actuality, this “culture of safetyism” manifests itself as a dogmatic ideology, not as culture in the sense of human intellectual achievement. Instead, its hallmarks are “dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism.”

[3] Misoponos: the name’s etymology carries some ambiguity. It literally means either one who loathes work or one who dislikes trouble. Both senses offer additional meaning in our context, as L&H go on to demonstrate just how much real work it takes as a society to conscientiously oppose these emotionally-charged Untruths, and on the other hand how enticing it may be to stick one’s head in the sand when overwhelmed by social troubles and instead retreat into the faddish, feel-good slogans of popular gurus (“trust your instincts”) or, equally, retreat to the self-affirming feedback loop of like-minded interactions offered by social media. On p.5 L&H mention that social media “allow citizens to retreat into self-confirmatory bubbles, where their worst fears about the evils of the other side can be confirmed and amplified by extremists and cyber trolls intent on sowing discord and division.” Their personification of this vapid untruth tendency in a charlatan guru was so poignant that I thought it worthy of special mention.

[4] They give the example of Boethius awaiting execution in AD 524, who describes an imaginary encounter with “Lady Philosophy” in which he learns to “reframe his thinking and shut off his negative emotions;” in doing so, he is essentially practicing modern CBT

[5] See the social psychology experiment described on pp. 57-8, in which individuals were seen to discriminate in favor of members of their “group” even when such a group identity was formed ad hoc for the experiment and based on “trivial and arbitrary criteria, such as flipping a coin” (57). It is interesting to note than in Russian, speakers still quite openly refer to others as either “one’s own” or “alien” to them. The opposition is powerful and pervasive in their mindset in a way naturally resisted (at least, its verbalization is shunned) by the much greater ethnic diversity in the United States. Russians more readily and more commonly conceptualize those they meet as belonging to one of these two groups. To give some idea of what this may sound like, the Ridley Scott film Alien features the second of these two terms as its title. That is, when referring to an unknown (and therefore dangerous) creature from another planet or to a human being with whom one feels no commonality, the tone gravitates toward xenophobic fear and hatred of that which is not “one’s own,” versus the extreme of familial/ethnic loyalty toward that which is felt to be familiar (and therefore safe).

[6] L&H are quick to point out that intersectionality itself may prove useful, but that its interpretations can sometimes exacerbate a tendency toward tribalism (68).

[7] L&H do a thorough job of distinguishing in Chapter 11 between different types of justice (distributive vs. procedural, with discussion of intuitive justice, equal outcomes, and proportional-procedural social justice as well). By delineating the details of each, L&H show how demanding equality of outcomes remains problematic when compared to social justice efforts aimed at distributive or procedural fairness (231).

[8] See Education at the Crossroads, “The Dynamics of Education” p.33.