The Coddling of the American Mind - Lukianoff & Haidt

Amazon link, highlights

“This is a book for anyone who is confused by what is happening on college campuses today, or has children, or is concerned about the growing inability of Americans to live, work, and cooperate across party lines.” — thecoddling.com

“The fault lies with adults and with institutional practices, hence our subtitle: “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” That is exactly what this book is about. We will show how well-intentioned overprotection—from peanut bans in elementary schools through speech codes on college campuses—may end up doing more harm than good.”

The authors published an Atlantic article in September ‘15 with the same title and the subtitle “How Trigger Warnings Are Hurting Mental Health on Campus,” link. Perhaps I should have read that article first before diving into their book.

  • Actually, having just read the article, though it’s long it basically summarizes the book; but if you don’t want to read it…

I discovered the book through Bloomberg’s Best Books of 2018, and wasn’t sure what to really expect. I suppose I thought it had something to do with the American approach to education — and to some degree that’s true — but it focuses on one specific aspect: the recent change in campus attitudes towards free speech. Attending a liberal arts college, I found this particularly topical, but the book would do a good job of introducing the subject/problem to those with no prior familiarity. What the authors do well, however, is (a) connect this narrative to a broader, more worrying trend: the growing culture of ‘safetyism’ with regards to how parents are raising their kids, and the negative consequences this holds for kids. (b) They offer 6 explanatory threads, deftly avoiding single cause fallacy, and (c) do well to include a slew of recommendations for parents and educators at the end.

Situation

  • TL;DR: take Taleb’s concept of antifragility, that’s how we should raise our kids; safetyism/overprotection does the opposite

    • “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child”

    • recent trends on campus may be consequences of education becoming too much of a luxury good, i.e. tailoring education to suit the preferences of students

    • CBT (cognitive behavioral theory) helps by helping us become more aware of potential cognitive distortions — partial list included at bottom — and also embracing exposure to stressors as opposed to promoting avoidance

    • concept creep of “safety” (previously relating to physical safety) on campuses to relate to ideological/emotional safety, see Van Jones video link

  • So called ‘untruths’ which (1) contradict ancient wisdom and (2) modern psychological research, and (3) harm the individual who uses them, but which parents have embraced:

    • (i) What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker

    • (ii) Always trust your feelings

    • (iii) Life is a battle between good people and evil people

  • Students are learning that intention no longer matters, outcome is more important (whether they feel offended or not)

    • Simultaneously they are encouraged “to find more things offensive (leading them to experience more negative impacts), and they’re told that whoever says or does the things they find offensive are ‘aggressors’ who have committed acts of bigotry against them, then you are probably fostering feelings of victimization, anger, and hopelessness in your students.”

“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.” — Hanna Holborn Gray, the president of the University of Chicago from 1978-1993

  • Recent shift from common-humanity politics to common-enemy

    • Common-enemy identity politics + microaggressions -> “call-out culture”

  • Idea that words can be violent, from NYT opinion July ‘17, link, that posited that words -> stress, stress -> physical harm, so words -> physical harm = violent… but this only tells us that words can cause harm, not that they are necessarily acts of violence

  • Distinction between physical and ideological safety, the second part should not be a property of college campuses

  • Political witch hunts (i) arise quickly, (ii) involve crimes against the collective, and (iii) charges are often trivial/fabricated, which result in (iv) a fear of defending the accused… these are all properties of professors and the open letters of denunciations that have become so prevalent in recent years

    • and in academia, the paradigm has changed from rebutting articles with subsequent publications to calling for the offending article’s withdrawal, i.e. censorship

    • no longer do universities represent ideological diversity

Explanation

  1. political polarization

    1. As increasingly Republican = white, male, rural, and Democrats the opposite, political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin: “The result is that today, differences in party affiliation go hand in glove with differences in world view and individuals’ sense of social and cultural identity.

    2. Also, media environment

    3. Common-enemy identity politics

  2. mental illness, with which social media use is correlated

  3. parenting

    1. higher income + more free time -> concerted cultivation (Lareau) -> overparenting -> fragile kids

  4. play

    1. decline in unsupervised free play, especially outdoors, which has declined not only due to attitudes towards play, but also increase in homework commitments (time spent doing homework 1981-97 up 145%)

    2. compare first grade readiness checklist from 1979 vs 2012, included in examples

  5. safetyism/victimhood culture

    1. “Safetyism” refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. “Safety” trumps everything else, no matter how unlikely or trivial the potential danger

    2. safetyism -> feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient

  6. social justice

    1. people are most politically impressionable between 14-18, e.g. those born in ’95, start of iGen who joined college in ‘13 experienced Obama’s presidency + teen political interest is often more social justice related than economic  -> super social justice minded teens

    2. but there are two types of social justice, (i) outcome-based, and (ii) proportional-procedural

      1. the latter is based on proportional distribution, i.e. input/output, which does not necessarily result in equal outcomes… i.e. proportional distribution means those who put in more, get more; procedural relates to fair process

      2. unequal outcomes are not not always evidence of underrepresentation, e.g. men are more interested in team sports -> schools padding women’s teams with members who don’t even play 

    3. problem is outcome-based social justice leads to attempts at correction, e.g. affirmative action, that require violating distributive and procedural justice, which violates most people’s intuitive sense of justice (proportional distribution and fair procedure)

Recommendations

For parents:

  • Prepare the child for the road, not the other way around

    • Assume they’re more capable than they were last month

    • Allow them to take risks

    • Find a community of other parents who share a commitment to avoiding overprotection

    • Free range parenting movement / letgrow.org

    • Encourage them to engage in productive disagreement

  • Teach kids the basics of CBT (book rec: The Worry Cure) and mindfulness

  • Raise kids to avoid seeing the world via a Manichaean perspective (good vs evil) by teaching them (i) to give people the benefit of the doubt (ii) to practice intellectual humility, and by (iii) looking very carefully at how their school handles identity politics

  • Choose a school that (i) doesn’t give excessive homework, (ii) gives more recess with less supervision, (iii) discourages the use of the word safety for anything other than physical safety

  • Limit device time

  • Promote service before/after college

For schools:

  • Prioritize freedom of inquiry / pursuit of truth

  • Pick students who are more likely to be able to succeed

  • Prepare and orient students for productive disagreement

    • Many students will experience their most cherished beliefs being challenged, and they must learn that this is not harassment or a personal attack; it is part of the process by which people do each other the favor of counteracting each other’s confirmation bias. Students must also learn to make well-reasoned arguments while avoiding ad hominem arguments, which criticize people rather than ideas. In summer reading suggestions and in orientation materials for new students, universities should clearly embrace the message of Ruth Simmons, former president of Brown University and the first black president of an Ivy League university:

“One’s voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views. . . . The collision of views and ideologies is in the DNA of the academic enterprise. We do not need any collision avoidance technology here.”13 Explain that classrooms and public lectures at your university are not intellectual “safe spaces.”

  • Draw a larger circle around the community

Events/Examples

  • Peanut butter allergies arising due to protection from exposure

    • In a study, 17% of children who had been “protected” from peanuts developed a peanut allergy, while in the group that had been deliberately exposed to peanut products, only 3% had developed an allergy.

  • UCBerkely “Milo Riots” 2017, link

  • UOregon State of the University 2017, link

  • Evergreen College protests 2017, link

  • “Paying the price for breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture” 2017 article, link

    • particularly offensive line: “All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy.”

  • “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color” 2017 article, link

    • led to headlines such as “USING WHITE MARBLE IN SCULPTURES IS RACIST AND CREATES “WHITE SUPREMACY”

1979 first grade readiness checklist

  • Will your child be six years, six months or older when he begins first grade and starts receiving reading instruction?

  • Does your child have two to five permanent or second teeth?

  • Can your child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman, where he lives?

  • Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored?

  • Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five to ten seconds?

  • Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels?

  • Can he tell left hand from right? Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?

  • Can he be away from you all day without being upset?

  • Can he repeat an eight- to ten-word sentence, if you say it once, as “The boy ran all the way home from the store”?

  • Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly? Does your child try to write or copy letters or numbers?

2012 first grade readiness checklist

  • Identify and write numbers to 100

  • Count by 10’s to 100, by 2’s to 20, by 5’s to 100

  • Interpret and fill in data on a graph

  • Read all kindergarten-level sight words

  • Be able to read books with five to ten words per page

  • Form complete sentences on paper using phonetic spelling (i.e., journal and story writing)

Common Cognitive Distortions

A partial list from Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J. F. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn’s Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders (2012).

1. Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”

2. Fortune-telling. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”

3. Catastrophizing.You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”

4. Labeling. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”

5. Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”

6. Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”

7. Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”

8. Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”

9. Blaming. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”

10. What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?,” or “What if I can’t catch my breath?”

11. Emotional reasoning. You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”

12. Inability to disconfirm. You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought I’m unlovable, you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”