By Carrie Sun
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Carrie Sun, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt about their book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation For Failure (Penguin Random House), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2019 NBCC Awards.
The bright red dust jacket serves as a warning: something’s wrong, on today’s college campuses. In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation For Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt investigate the new problems emerging in American childhood and education — from the rise of safetyism to the deleterious effects of call-out culture. They also provide explanatory threads for why this is happening. Ultimately, they give us hope: a series of actionable steps to improve the situation so that the long arc of history may, hopefully, continue its bend toward progress.
Carrie Sun: Can you speak about how this book came to be? Why now?
Greg Lukianoff: It's actually a personal story. The first part is that First Amendment law was my passion for most of my life. When I started at FIRE back in 2001, students were great on free speech. That all changed around 2013 to 2014, seemingly overnight. A big part of the book is trying to get to the bottom of why this change happened.
The second part is that I had a dangerous depression back in 2007 for which I ended up hospitalized. During recovery, what helped me the most was Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). While I was studying these cognitive distortions, I was working on campuses watching administrators teach what looked like the bad intellectual habits of catastrophizing and fortune-telling, by example. These are the very kinds of behaviors that CBT teaches you not to do if you want to overcome anxiety and depression. Then, around 2013 - 2014, we started seeing this sudden uptick in student demands for censorship. That's not unheard of in history: in the late 80s, early 90s, you had the first age of political correctness on campus, in which students pushed for new “speech codes” to curtail offensive, bigoted, or sexist speech. What made this current era different was how heavily the reasons for censorship relied on medicalized rationales. I discussed this with my friend Jonathan Haidt and together we wrote an article about it in The Atlantic, which came out August 2015. After we published the article, unfortunately, the problem on campuses relating to tolerance for freedom of speech and to issues of mental health got much more — so we decided to write a book.
I've never liked the title, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” My original title for the article was "Arguing for its Misery.”
CS: What was it like working on a book together? What was your process for research and for writing?
GL: We did a very good job of splitting it up. My research team and I worked on the front-end; Jon took over as we were getting closer to handing it in. It was perfect, because Jon has an unusual ability to understand entirely what I was trying to say, and make it shorter, simpler, and clearer.
Jonathan Haidt: Well, thank you, Greg. I would add that in producing anything, there's an expansive phase to creativity when you're generating novel ideas; then, the second half is the filtering and selection part where you're eliminating things. Greg is extremely good at the first part and, frankly, not as good at the second. And if you look at our personalities, at least intellectually, he's a bit more Oscar Madison and I'm more Felix Unger.
GL: I'm also very messy so it's apt.
CS: It sounds like a match made in heaven for this book. Moving on to the content: you set the stage for what's happening across college campuses by talking about three Great Untruths — fragility; emotional reasoning; and us-versus-them mentality. What are your biggest worries if these untruths continue to spread across American youth and the rest of society?
JH: Originally, we thought it was being generated on campuses. What became clear was that these problems were already being baked in to kids in Gen Z well before they got there. It was also happening in other English speaking countries — not so much on the continent, but in the UK, Canada, and to a lesser extent Australia. We saw a way of thinking and a way of being that would be extremely bad for mental health, productivity, cooperation, and diversity and inclusion — and it was spreading rapidly.
Two specific outcomes I'm most worried about are: The mental health crisis for teenagers, especially teenage girls. We are in danger of having a generation of girls that will have higher rates of fragility and, therefore, may accomplish less than the Millennial women. I think we will see Millennial women become extremely successful as #MeToo and other recent events and trends remove obstacles and make more room at the top. I think Millennial women and Gen X women — we're going to see them rising. It's possible that this progress may reverse for Gen Z women.
The other is that we're seeing a lot more email from people who work in business saying: "I have these students fresh out of college and I’m exhausted from mediating conflicts where somebody used a word that somebody else didn't like."
GL: So Jon, Carrie says she's been seeing that in her work. I wanted to ask her, can you elaborate on that?
CS: Yes, definitely. Jon, some of your work has come up before at a hedge fund I was working at before my MFA.
JH: That’s right! That's when we first heard it. There's been a lot since then.
CS: It's been a lot. What I've been seeing is: instead of solving the conflicts interpersonally, you go to HR. I’m seeing the creep of safetyism off campuses and into workplaces. We've jumped to my last question: Since the book went to print in May 2018, what updates do you have in terms of what you're seeing? Either on campuses, or elsewhere?
JH: One is that the situation on campus is changing a little bit. The spectacular shout-downs and disinvitations have gone down. There was a peak in 2016 and 2017 related to the presidential election. But, the real problem is the tens of thousands of cases of self-silencing — it's the call-out culture. I see no sign that’s abating. I've been speaking at some private high schools, and it's the same thing there.
GL: And on my end, some of the research that's come out since, particularly the hidden tribes survey, I thought was extremely interesting. A lot of these norms for what the survey dubs “progressive activists” comes from a group that is typically white, affluent, and surprisingly racially homogeneous. The only other group in that survey that was more racially homogeneous was the other end of the spectrum, the strict conservatives, which is remarkable given progressive activists’ focus on diversity.
JH: Adding to that, we presented a vision of far-right and far-left identity politics in the book. We described the polarization cycle. What we've seen, since then, is that the increase in race-based identity politics has been borne out.
CS: Speaking of call-out culture: is there a way to see this call-out culture as a response to previous ways, wherein bad behavior went unnoticed and was tolerated? How can we cultivate more of the positive side of call-out culture with less of the downside?
JH: Yes, we can definitely see it as part of the progress of increasing sensitivity. When there’s an improvement in sensitivity, there is progress. But the problem is the prestige economy of call-out culture. Any gain in sensitivity is counteracted by the gigantic loss of happiness, inclusion, trust, and well-being.
GL: One main theme in the book is this idea of “problems of progress,” that so much of this is the result of otherwise good trends. But any virtue taken to extremes can become a vice. We stress the idea of ancient wisdom. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to enjoy the fruits of progress, but also be able to learn from the wisdom of people who lived in much harder times?
JH: That's right. I think there is an important sense in which the 20th century was a century of extraordinary moral progress. But in the last few years, we're seeing a couple of important reversals of this progress. I would say that coming to judge people as individuals, not as members of groups, was progress — but that's reversing. Another is to have justice meted out by due process and not by mob action — that’s also progress, and it’s also reversing. The accusation is, for all intents and purposes, the conviction, and social media makes it all happen very fast. The loss of due process, the fact that the standard response to an accusation is that the person is fired — this is just stunning.
CS: That's really concerning. I’m wondering: you list six social trends or forces as having contributed to causing this problem. It seems to me like some of those factors might have a deeper, hidden factor having to do with capitalism and neoliberalism: bureaucracy of safetyism can be seen as the marketization of academia; anxiety and depression of both children and parents a result of increasingly precarious job situations. How might you address the idea that some of the factors you list might be symptoms of a larger issue?
GL: One thing we see as a potential seventh causal strand is the idea that, with such intense economic stratification, parents are so desperate to get their children into these top schools. There is a sense that those schools are life rafts you can take to get to the upper classes. This is not irrational, given stagnant wages and other bad outcomes for the middle and lower-middle classes in the United States right now. As long as colleges, particularly elite colleges, have this mentality that favors the products of helicopter parenting, it makes helicopter parenting not irrational, even though it's toxic.
JH: To give ourselves credit, we do point that out in our parenting chapter. The piece we did not say explicitly, that we should have, was the national rise in inequality. We did point to an increase in competition to get into college — we had half the story there. Some argue basically that it's neoliberalism and rising inequality contributing to this crisis. I think there's probably some truth to that. But on the other hand, rising inequality and social stressors, be it 9/11 or the financial crisis, should have affected the Millennials far more than Gen Z — and they didn't. So, of all the causes going on, my ranking is: one, the huge overprotection and the denial of childhood; and two, interacting with social media too early.
GL: I would probably just flip those. I think that social media is the whole reason why this got so bad, so fast.
JH: Absolutely. If we just had Internet 1.0, Google and Wikipedia and Khan Academy, it would have been great. But I do think it's social media, connecting us all in communities where you get prestige by calling out, that is what really hit us like a tidal wave.
GL: I realized a key part of the point I was trying to make earlier: since employers over-value you going to an elite college with a prominent name, that's one of the reasons why this has a real world effect on your life. And why parents, once again, have some rationality to helicoptering, unfortunately.
JH: The metaphor I've been thinking about recently is: some distance runners and cyclists train at high altitude because they want to train under adverse circumstances so that, when they are then in the realm of competition, they have an advantage. What we're doing to our elite kids is exactly the opposite.
CS: I completely agree. I went to MIT in the mid-aughts and the attitude was that you just kind of took it, and that that gave you a thick skin with which you could go into the world and do anything.
JH: Precisely. And that's why the Van Jones video that we put in the book is the best thing out there. Because he says: this is the gym. It’s the whole point of a gym, to train. If you get trained in these rarefied environments where there are no weights in the weight room, you're not hirable.
CS: Lastly, you mention green shoots for counter trends already underway: changing attitudes about social media, free range parenting bills, and more. Where do you think the momentum for these counter trends will come from? What’s next?
JH: Once businesses get involved and start saying, “We can't hire these kids because they destroy value in our company,” then what we're going to see, which would be fantastic, is more students shunning the Ivy Leagues for other schools who will not over-protect them. We’ll see businesses hiring more from non-elite schools, which will do wonders for inequality. Then the pressure is off the helicopter parents, too.
GL: Right, exactly. We're trying to spread the word that colleges listen to their alumni: they want their donations; they don't want to develop a bad reputation. Alumni see what higher education is doing is dysfunctional, and they're starting to push back in large numbers.
The other thing that's hopeful is the new organization, Let Grow. Clearly, it hit a nerve, because we have had the free range parenting law passed in Utah and a couple other places, and now potentially in Connecticut. That could definitely help change things as well.
Greg Lukianoff is the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Lukianoff is a graduate of American University and Stanford Law School. He specializes in free speech and First Amendment issues in higher education. He is the author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate and Freedom From Speech.
Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He obtained his PhD in social psychology from University of Pennsylvania in 1992, and then taught at the University of Virginia for sixteen years. He is the author of The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis.
Carrie Sun is a writer based in Brooklyn. She is at work on a narrative critique of capitalism, wealth, and the American dream.