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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Book review: 'The Coddling of the American Mind' 

The authors of this new book focus on the intellectual collapse of American universities and the conditions that seem to be setting up a generation for failure

Hundreds gather to protest at the appearance of far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ argues that only American students in elite universities are turned into activists AP
Hundreds gather to protest at the appearance of far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ argues that only American students in elite universities are turned into activists AP

The state of the youth in America is hardly a new preoccupation, and as long as we have seen the future, some have predicted chaos and doom following on the heels of the next generation.

Critics have described it as a “crisis on campus”, and employed language befitting a crisis. Others have predicted not only a traducing of the traditional purpose of universities, but a broader intellectual and moral collapse, as the doctrines taught in those succumbing institutions of higher learning leech into the corporate world through those graduates employed in marshalling capital’s human resources.

Opponents of this perspective charge not that the above is a misreading, born from the disapproval and disconnection of the old for the young, but rather that it is a retrograde idea designed to smuggle evil doctrines back onto campus via the back door, cloaked in the language of free speech, free enquiry, and thinking for oneself.

It is into this agitated situation that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt step, with their book on those conditions that are “setting up a generation for failure”, as their typically American (and thus typically unconcise) subtitle has it. The title as a whole, borrowed from an Atlantic essay in which the authors’ ideas first received an airing, does them few favours.

Amid tumult, the book is calm. It aims, and mostly manages, to work on evidence with quiet, unexciting authority.

In recent interviews conducted to promote his book, Haidt seems almost aching to walk back anything that looks like a strong claim. He notes that the data he has seen suggests that colleges have not been radicalised for long – a direct contradiction of long-standing conservative thought, which holds that the rot set in with the advent of academic post-modernism and associated schools in the mid-20th century, if not earlier.

The Coddling of the American Mind Courtesy Penguin Random House
The Coddling of the American Mind Courtesy Penguin Random House

Haidt is also, when interviewed, at pains to offer the following clarification: rather than students worldwide being turned into activists, keen to denounce faculty, censor their reading material and drive contentious speakers from campus, he contends, it is only American students who suffer – and far from all of them. In fact, that behaviour only seems to have taken hold in east and west coast universities enjoying elite standing and charging high fees. And even then, only a minority acts as the authors describe.

This could reasonably be said to put the lie to the notion that an entire generation is at risk from a contagion of the above.

Amid all this qualification and equanimity, Lukianoff and Haidt’s book, lacks the aggression and attractiveness of more direct arguments, but in doing so, it also sidesteps their flaws.

The book aims to identify a specific problem and does so – not amid the generalised tales of “insanity on campus”, which have been a mainstay of histrionic press coverage for decades, but rather in the way certain unhelpful impulses are being fanned and allowed to spread without serious opposition, and how this is not serving America’s young, or the people who will have to live with them in the years to come.

Rather than believing the maxim that whatever doesn’t kill them makes them stronger (itself forgiveable, given its self-evident absurdity), the kids of today are said to think that being challenged wounds them irreparably. Believing oneself and one’s colleagues weak and easily breakable is not empowering, Lukianoff and Haidt explain; but its effect can prove powerful enough to be self-fulfilling.

Rather than seeking to treat thinking as a game of acquisition and interrogation, the subjects of the book see it as a trick of self-examination, with the answers available only inward. In doing so, they fall prey to “the untruth of emotional reasoning”, which holds that you must “always trust your feelings”.

The critique the authors offer for the final myth seems a little less homespun and a little closer to real insight. Those whose minds they seek to change are said to believe that “life is a battle between good people and evil people” (a prognosis that rather stacks the deck against the possibility of changing their good minds to accommodate any such evil counterargument).

Even if this appears exaggerated, it is a worthy windmill against which to tilt. In an age as polarised as our own, and among doomy predictions of a future of alternative facts and ideological isolation, a healthy sense of the decency of even those who disagree is necessary and vital.

It is not only the young who need to “relearn” this piece of “ancient wisdom”, of course. But perhaps if they can, the generation Lukianoff and Haidt examine can be spared future failure, and others may be pulled back from the brink by the force of its example.

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