Are Colleges Turning Out Our Most Self-Absorbed and Fragile Generation?

Towards the end of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, the authors declare that it is “a good time for us to lay our cards on the table, politically speaking.” Lukianoff confesses he is “a liberal with some sympathy for libertarian perspectives.” Haidt declares he “is a centrist who sides with the Democratic Party on the great majority of issues.” Neither statement will surprise anyone who has read their previous books or followed their public careers. Yet remarkably, the two are celebrated and supported by a broad swath of American conservatives. Why?

Mainly, because they are highly effective opponents of the lunatic left. Moreover, their efficacy is built in large measure on their I-am-not-a-conservative-but positioning. Lukianoff is best known as a scourge of campus speech codes and foe of university bureaucrats who suppress the First Amendment rights of students. He does this in the spirit of a First Amendment absolutist who is willing to defend virtually any kind of speech, regardless of its scabrous nature or repellent intent.

Related: Ten Things Destroying American Higher Education

Haidt occupies a different niche as a champion of intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas in academic disciplines that have become, in effect, self-enclosed communities of faith focused on a few leftist idols. Haidt founded the Heterodox Academy, a membership group open to all academics, as a counter-balance to leftist omphaloskepsis. But to maintain credibility with campus liberals, Haidt has regularly gone out of his way to distance himself from campus conservatives. With only a few exceptions, he abandons them to fight their own battles.

The Coddling of the American Mind is Lukinaoff and Haidt’s expansion of their 2015 cover story of the same title in The Atlantic. The book version includes some minor revisions in the thesis, mainly in emphasis, a great many more examples, a fuller development of the “cognitive behavioral therapy” framework introduced in the original article, and a richer discussion of other explanatory threads.

Their book aims to explain why a particular cohort of students they call the “iGen” students—born in and after 1995—are so psychologically fragile, demanding, and unhappy. Another writer might pick stronger words. The iGen students are, in many respects, a miserable, self-besotted, surly, hapless lot who are at the same time nasty in their treatment of one another and deeply immersed in self-pity. But let’s gently usher that other writer to the back of the room. Lukianoff and Haidt have not written this book out of annoyance with iGen’ers but in an effort to help them overcome their distress. This is a book that never once mentions “crybullies.” Lukianoff and Haidt also hope to help the rest of us empathize with iGen’ers and perhaps mend our ways since we are to some extent responsible for the iGen’ers debilities.

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Their book, they tell us up-front, has “no clear villains,” which is to say that it offers a loosely sociological (and strongly psychological) account of the rise of what Lukianoff and Haidt call “safety culture” on campus. Safety culture demands that students be kept free from the expression of any idea that might occasion discomfort. One of its hallmarks, however, is the conflation of psychological discomfort with “violence,” so that the mere expression of an unwelcome idea is taken as an act of violence.

Lukianoff and Haidt discern the “Great Untruths” embedded in Safety Culture: Fragility, Emotional Reasoning, and Us Versus Them. They unpack these in various ways, but the taglines for each recur dozens of times in the ensuing chapters.

Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.

Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

They offer abundant examples of iGen’ers who assume these simplistic absurdities, which of course are not original with the iGen’ers and not exclusive to that generation. But American society is without question a place where the emotional contours shift generation by generation.

It is odd and clearly remarkable that this happens because it is not the way of the world. Far more commonly, societies replenish themselves with generations that, as they mature, greatly resemble in their emotive patterns their parent’s generation. This isn’t a lock-step process. Successive generations always have some common experiences of their own, some favored attitudes, and some emotional distinctives. But the broad pattern is to conserve the core of what came before. That’s because children acquire their basic emotional patterning in the family and family structure, historically, did not change much from generation to generation until quite recently.

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America has been a far more dynamic society than most, to the point where generational divides have often stood out. The generation that came to adulthood after the Revolutionary War felt different from those who fought; and the Civil War left a generation to grow up in the shadow of a great catastrophe. World War One gave us the manic twenties and the Lost Generation. The more recent habit of naming generations—the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, the Millennials, etc.—makes rough sense of historical turbulence, including economic and technological dislocation.

The Coddling of the American Mind can be seen as a contribution to the ethnography of such generational change. The children who grew up in the age of i-phones and more generally social media saturation really do differ from all previous generations. Few of us regard the difference with approbation, but never mind. The key questions are how the kids got trapped in their cul-de-sac and what we can do to rescue them.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), says Lukianoff and Haidt, is the lifeline. This amounts to teaching depressed people to steer their own thoughts into healthier patterns. It is the opposite, so to speak, of psychotherapy, which seeks to uncover and resolve deep traumas. It focuses instead on what the individual can do for himself by dint of hard work and emotional self-control. It is a version of classic Stoicism.

And it certainly sounds like an appealing answer to those who fetishize their own mental vulnerabilities. To seek one’s identity in the need to be protected from Big Bad Expressions of Disagreement or the threat of encountering an uncomfortable idea is to dig a deep hole and then complain about the lack of sunlight.

CBT may not work as an iGen-wide solution, but surely it will help some, and Lukianoff and Haidt deserve praise for throwing that life-preserver into these troubled waters.

As a broader explanation of what has happened on campus, however, The Coddling of the American Mind has limits. The authors multiply the factors that aggravate the situation: political polarization, the increase in anxiety disorders, helicopter parenting, the decline of free play, campus safety bureaucracy, and “the quest for justice” each merit a chapter, and each chapter offers a further factoring of sub-causes. The reader can readily assent to most of this, but still be left with the sense that the iGen’ers have imposed a kind of moral panic and collective hysteria on themselves that is more than the sum of the parts that Lukianoff and Haidt describe. Their short chapter on “Witch Hunts” comes closest to the mark, and their description of what happened at Evergreen State College in Spring 2017 is as chilling as any story by Stephen King. Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, (2018) briefly mentioned by Lukianoff and Haidt, is a deeper exploration of this side of the problem.

I’d venture just a little further. The liberalism professed by both Lukianoff and Haidt blinds them to the degree to which iGen resentments are part of the larger anti-civilization program fostered by schools and colleges. Rather than press back in any meaningful way against this nihilistic self-absorption, our educational institutions actively foster it. They demonize the freedoms and responsibilities that could liberate these students to pursue better lives. Instead, they preach “social justice,” which amounts to a comprehensive antipathy to our freedom and our civilization. The antipathy is typically soft-pedaled but is not less an antipathy for that. It is antipathy diluted down to the taste of invalid minds. And liberalism simply offers no place to stand in which this slow intoxication can be seen clearly.

Peter Wood

Peter Wood

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “Diversity: the Invention of a Concept.”

5 thoughts on “Are Colleges Turning Out Our Most Self-Absorbed and Fragile Generation?

  1. An interesting thing to note: Those that believe emotional discomfort constitutes violence have proven in recent history to be the most likely to perpetrate actual violence.

    It’s another example of the left engaging in projectionism. With a few caveats, what leftists claim about others, actually applies to their own behavior.

  2. It is impossible to absolve the professors from at least a portion of the cause. Most are tenured, living a safe life with little responsibility except teaching and little compensation. It is possible to view that professors view these young students as candidates for tenure for life – for future life. This implies they too, the students, should be safe, protected, and with little self-responsibility. It is relatively easy to convince impressionable students they enter the workforce with such expectations, and this gives something of an explanation why employers are currently disappointed with many new college grads, who have unreasonably high employment expectations, freedoms, and safety, i.e. tenure.

  3. It is as if this entire generation were raised as a upper middle class only child. Generally, only children conceive of themselves as the center of the world because they’ve had the complete attention of their parents for all of their lives.

  4. “One of its hallmarks, however, is the conflation of psychological discomfort with “violence,” so that the mere expression of an unwelcome idea is taken as an act of violence.”

    This fall’s freshmen were born a year after the 1999 Columbine shooting and were in Kindergarten when the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting occurred. They have grown up in the atmosphere of asinine paranoia that evolved out of those tragic outliers*, they have grown up with school “lockdowns” and hiding in closets from perceived school shooters.

    Worse has been the “Behavioral Intervention Team” approach (see: https://nabita.org/documents/Article_SokolowLewis_URMIAJournal2009_20090722.pdf). These BITs have created the concept of “Cognitive Aggression” being viewed as an inevitable precursor of physical violence and advocate treating it as such. They also argue that expressing an opinion that differs from that of the collective group constitutes “Cognitive Aggression” and hence those who do so should be perceived as likely to perpetrate physical violence.

    This is why the “Snowflakes” perceive an unwelcome idea as physical violence — from birth, they have been told that they should. As a believer in free will, I’m not letting them off the hook, but it’s the Psych people who have infiltrated both K-12 and Higher Ed administration who are largely responsible for it.

    * James Alan Fox, a Criminology Professor at Northeastern University, states that school shooting are exceedingly rare and increasingly so. According to Fox, the odds of a child being shot in school is 0.15 in a million, or 0.015 per 100,000 – compare that to the opiate overdose rate of 13.2 per 100,000, which is roughly 1000 times higher!

    1. Interesting post. It reminds me of something I read in the past year that points out that drug addict, when faced with the loss of his supply, sees it as death. Someone who has been sheltered and taught a conforming attitude all his life, might see a nonconforming idea as more than just violence, he might see it a tantamount to death, too.

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