The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt‘s book, is a great read. It is full of interesting stories about where society, and universities in particular, are going wrong. I have a decent amount of sympathy with their arguments. It is important that we preserve free speech. The cost being that sometimes we have to put up with people we think are problematic.
What Did The Writer Do Wrong?
It is not just ‘offensive’ outside speakers being hounded. There was at least one example where I wasn’t sure what the person did wrong. “… we are working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our CMC mold” (Dean of Students, quoted in Lukianoff and Haidt, 2018). This was said to be offensive because it implied there was a mold at the college. Yet, how can we hope to improve universities without implying they are not being perfect currently? In this case saying the university had a mold was absolutely necssary to show what the university needed to move on from.
It is hard to avoid giving offence if you aren’t clear upfront what is offensive. This helps the author’s argument as they, rightly I think, suggest that we can’t just let anyone who is offended define what is offensive. ‘Reasonable people’ tests may have a bad history of not being at all representative. That said, the basic idea surely makes sense. We need to fix who gets to define what is reasonable of course. Still the most sensitive person cannot be the standard.
Especially as vague tests are likely to mean in universities that the less powerful are the most hurt. Adjuncts can be hounded from their roles for minor, unclear offenses while tenured professors get away with genuinely offensive things because, well, tenure.
The Coddling Of The American Mind Is (Too?) Wide Ranging
It is great that the book is so wide ranging — it talks universities, parenting, therapy, social change — and wraps it all together with a central thesis. I admire the sort of broad sweep thinking and bringing things together.
I worried several times that I wasn’t equipped to give it a meaningful critique. While I have kids, and do worry we are all being weirdly overprotective sometimes, I don’t feel I have the expertise to know what exactly is the right level of protectiveness. Is this book a good source on parenting? I don’t know. I felt a bit more confident when reading the bits on universities as I have at least given a bit more thought to this. For example, e.g.., see here. (In retrospect, given that I’m a parent, I’m not sure that I should admit that I don’t know much about good parenting).
Need More Data
There are some great examples. The conduct code that says “no student shall offend anyone on University property” (Lukianoff and Haidt, 2018) was hilarious. It is obviously a truly terrible guide to behavior. The authors attack on the three great untruths is surely right. The untruths being of fragility, emotional reasoning and us versus them. Basically that people need to be protected from everything, their feelings are perfect guides, and that life is a struggle between the good and bad people.
While I was generally nodding along with their book occasionally I would stop myself and wish that they provided a bit more hard data. The cool anecdotes are great but, to a certain extent, the fact that some campuses have got it wrong isn’t at all surprising. Leadership errors are surely to be expected given the sheer number of US universities. Is clamping down on free speech, and harassing those who don’t go along, in order to protect over sensitive students a widespread problem. Or is it just an occasional blip? Occasional blips aren’t good but with any system you expect errors either way. Some administrations will over coddle students, other will not do enough coddling. I want a bit more hard data to know for sure what is happening and whether they is too much coddling or under-coddling.
Lots of great material but I would love to read a similarly well written counter-argument to this.
Read: Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018) The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure Penguin