The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt:

Overprotecting children hinders them from confronting physical, emotional, and intellectual challenges.

Noting a rise of anxiety and depression among teenagers and threats to free speech on many college campuses, Lukianoff (Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, 2012), an attorney and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and social psychologist Haidt (Ethical Leadership/New York Univ.; The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, 2012, etc.) offer an incisive analysis of the causes of these problems and a measured prescription for change. The authors assert that many parents, teachers, professors, and university administrators have been teaching young people to see themselves as fragile and in need of protection: “to exaggerate danger” (even from words), “amplify their first emotional responses,” and see the world as a battle between good and evil. Particularly regrettable is “the creep of the word ‘unsafe’ to encompass ‘uncomfortable,’ ” as students seek to institute trigger warnings on course curricula and to lobby for “safe spaces” where they feel sheltered from ideas they deem emotionally or intellectually difficult to confront. “We teach children to monitor themselves for the degree to which they feel ‘unsafe’ and then talk about how unsafe they feel,” the authors write, and to interpret unpleasant emotions as dangerous. The authors present detailed accounts of the “meltdown into anarchy” on college campuses when “political diversity is reduced to very low levels, when the school’s leadership is weak and easily intimidated,” and when professors and administrators fail to uphold free speech and academic freedom. “Many professors,” write the authors, “say they now teach and speak more cautiously, because one slip or one simple misunderstanding could lead to vilification and even threats from any number of sources.” Social media outlets have inflamed these attacks. The authors offer practical suggestions for parents (allow children independence and nurture self-reliance) and teachers (cultivate intellectual virtues and teach debate skills) to guide children into adulthood.