magine yourself at the therapist’s office. “Doc,” you say, “there are invisible forces pressing down on me. I’m too weak to save myself!” The therapist replies, “You’re right. The danger is everywhere.” You ask, “What should I do?” The therapist replies, “Hide. But that’s a temporary solution. Unite with other victims and crush the sadistic fascists who run the show. It’s a long shot, but… sorry, our hour is up.”
In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that this absurd therapeutic approach resembles the country’s current approach to education. Lukianoff is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a steadfast defender of student and faculty freedom. Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, co-founded the Heterodox Academy, a group of professors and graduate students supporting much-needed viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement in higher education.
In the summer of 2015, Haidt and Lukianoff examined, for the Atlantic, a growing, student-driven, movement to protect vulnerable students from psychological harm. That movement’s mantra is “I feel unsafe.” “I feel unsafe” is the reaction when a speaker denies that America is a white-supremacist nation. “I feel unsafe” is the response to a classmate who says that “America is the land of opportunity.” Students who claim to feel unsafe because of these “microaggressions” find themselves in need of a “safe space,” naturally. Lukianoff and Haidt agree with others that this new “safetyism,” as they call it in their book, chills legitimate speech and inquiry. Their distinctive contribution to the higher-education debate is to meet safetyism on its own, psychological turf. Good therapists help patients confront and examine their fears. College leaders, instead, push programs, such as microaggression training, that exhort students to detect new dangers lurking in innocuous speech, trust their feelings about them, and depend on administrators to defeat the enemy. University students are “learning to think in distorted ways,” which “increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.”
The Coddling of the American Mind, which expands and refines the 2015 analysis, finds that safetyism is a feature of not only college but also our “unsettling time.” Lukianoff and Haidt divide their argument into four parts. In the first, they describe “three Great Untruths” that we, usually inadvertently, teach young people, often before they reach college. In our effort to protect them—from “failures, insults, and painful experiences”—we teach them “the untruth of fragility.” Since people cannot develop defenses against threats without being exposed to them, this teaching harms those we mean to help. When we, sometimes for good reasons, encourage children to trust their sense that something is wrong, we teach them the “untruth of emotional reasoning,” according to which feelings should not be questioned. Since it is healthy to test feelings, particularly those that make us anxious and depressed, against a “realistic appraisal of events,” this teaching harms those we mean to help. When we urge students to affirm group differences, we risk strengthening the “tribalism” to which people naturally tend, and teaching them “the untruth of us versus them.” This untruth fuels “common enemy identity politics,” which pits beleaguered women and minority students against overwhelming white, straight, male power. This teaching promotes despair and infertile conflict, so it harms those we mean to help.
In the book’s second part, Lukianoff and Haidt consider campus developments that have occurred since their Atlantic article appeared. That fall, as if on cue, student activists hit the quads. Inspired by activists at the University of Missouri, who helped drive out their president over his failure to address racial injustice there, groups on dozens of campuses issued demands, marched, and, in some cases, occupied administrative offices. In the spring of 2017, Americans gaped as students at the famously left-wing Evergreen State College insisted that “its politically progressive leadership and faculty” were “exemplars of white supremacy.” Protesters, “fearful for their lives,” confronted Evergreen’s president, George Bridges, who, rather than question their premises, applauded them. He assured protesters that although some faculty “say some things we don’t like,” “our job is to bring them all in… and if they don’t get it, sanction ’em.” Confronted with the untruth of us versus them, a craven Bridges offered to be the captain of Team Us. The Evergreen story illustrates what can happen when “political diversity” is very low, “the school’s leadership is weak,” and “professors and administrators allow or even encourage the spread of the three Great Untruths.”
In the third part of the book, Haidt and Lukianoff explain why safetyism “swept through many universities between 2013 and 2017.” Some reasons are specific to higher education. For example, campus bureaucrats, “bombarded with directives” from lawyers and “risk management professionals,” were trying to encase students in bubble wrap long before students decided they liked it. But the strength of this section is its focus on happenings off campus, making good on Lukianoff and Haidt’s ambition to write about our time and not just our colleges. We often imagine that professors teach students to be enraged about politics. But political scientists tell us that our politics is already animated by “negative partisanship,” in which “Americans are now motivated to leave their couches…not by love for their party’s candidate but by hatred of the other party’s candidate.” Campuses may reinforce the untruth of us versus them, but that untruth governs off-campus life, too.
Lukianoff and Haidt once thought that colleges themselves might be responsible for the well-documented surge in demand for their mental-health services. Teaching students fragility makes them feel fragile. But Lukianoff and Haidt now emphasize that “a much larger national wave of adolescent anxiety and depression” has been gaining force since 2012. What they call “paranoid parenting,” an obsession with protecting children from small risk, contributes to the problem by teaching children that the world is full of danger. A move toward supervised indoor play contributes by leaving children with little tolerance for risk and little capacity to handle conflict. These trends are peaking in young people, dubbed IGen by some commentators, “born in and after 1995,” the “first generation that spent …its formative teen years immersed in . . . social media.” Cautiously, Lukianoff and Haidt propose that when screen time substitutes for face-to-face interactions, human beings, a social species, are more likely to be depressed and less likely to deal well with adversity and difficult peers. The rise in safetyism, Lukianoff and Haidt say, coincided with the IGen’s arrival at college.
Here, though, Lukianoff and Haidt’s eagerness to tie campus developments to broader trends leads them astray. Research about IGen is too unsettled to bank on. Besides, the differences between IGen and other cohorts probably are not big enough to explain recent campus unrest. Yes, the percentage of students who report feeling sad and hopeless is up since 2009, but it is not much higher than it was in 1999. Yes, according to one major survey, students in 2015 liked a bit of danger less than students had in 2010. But measured by the same survey, they liked it more than students in the comparatively rugged 1980s.
Since small groups of left-wing students, not a whole generation, set the tone for the campus excitement Lukianoff and Haidt are investigating, the authors would do better to home in on the politics of the left. There, a demonic racist and sexist power structure that requires the creation of safe spaces has been an important theme for decades. Instead, a chapter on the “quest for justice” among college students focuses on the tension between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes, an evergreen theme of little help in explaining safetyism.
Finally, the book’s fourth part offers a grab bag of ways to promote wisdom in young children and college students, from expanding recess and placing limits on device time to “including viewpoint diversity in diversity policies.” By wisdom, Lukianoff and Haidt mean roughly the opposite of the three Great Untruths. We are not fragile but “antifragile,” depending on engagement with the threatening and unfamiliar to flourish. We cannot trust our feelings but must test them. Neither life nor politics is best viewed in terms of a righteous “us” and an “unrighteous” them. It is both truer and more politically constructive to recognize our common humanity.
Philosophers will quibble with this understanding of wisdom, which Lukianoff and Haidt patch together mainly from the findings of psychologists and snippets of ancient thinkers who anticipated those findings. But we should not quibble when Lukianoff and Haidt tell us that safetyism undermines the freedom of inquiry and speech that are indispensable to universities. They believe that administrators and students are already sick of safetyism and predict that if just a few daring colleges and universities identify themselves again as homes of reason “market forces will take care of the rest.”
That’s so uncrazy, it just might work.