The Coddling of the American Mind

The Coddling of the American Mind

The Book in 1'

The Coddling of the American Mind is a bold and provocative book.

It provides a snapshot of the current state of elite universities in the US. Through data, case studies, and stories, the authors assess problems on campuses related to free speech, safetyism, mental health, and identity politics.

The book delves into how individuals from the iGen (those who grew up with social media and the iPhone) often have overprotective parents. The combination of these factors (social medias and overprotecting parents) leaves them unprepared for the real world.

These individuals are not as ready to socialize as previous generations were. They increasingly seek safety measures such as having psychologists on campus, restricting uncomfortable speech because it feels like violence, requiring trigger warning labels next to courses that are not inclusive enough, and perceiving microaggressions everywhere.

Essentially, iGen kids have been shaped by what the authors call
“The 3 Great Untruths”:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us vs. Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.
“Many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.”

The argument presented is that by prioritizing students’ "fragilities" and feelings, there’s a challenge in engaging in free speech and open debate. Universities, in this regard, are simply exacerbating the problem.

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What’s interesting is that the book is relatively old now. It was written six years ago (2018), before COVID and the George Floyd BLM movement. What we can observe is that after these events, things have not changed; they have actually become even worse on most campuses.

Safetyism

Safety on college campuses is no longer just linked to physical security; it now encompasses 'emotional safety' as well. Incoming students often lack preparation to confront ideas that differ from those they were taught at home.

Their reluctance to engage in debates, confrontations, and courses because 'not inclusive enough,' lacking subjective experiences and 'voices,' has led students to press professors and administration to label courses and on-campus events with "trigger warnings" and establish "safe spaces" where you know your feelings will never be hurt.

The underlying idea is that speech can resemble violence, physical violence.  Speech that is not considered inclusive, equitable, or diverse enough is categorized as 'microaggression,' hence qualifying as a form of violence.

The relationship between families and universities operates on a customer-service model, making it reasonable for parents to expect universities to replicate the safe environment they've fostered at home. Safetyism merely extends the parent-child dynamic.

Call-out-Culture

In college environments, merely expressing something controversial that contradicts the prevailing sentiment or the ideology of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) immediately categorizes one as an 'enemy.'

Even more problematic, you might encounter issues simply by abstaining from taking a side in every conflict. Whether you oppose gun control or simply remain indifferent, not aligning with the 'just' faction makes you an enemy. This situation fosters an atmosphere ripe for the emergence of a 'call-out culture,' where students gain recognition by pinpointing minor transgressions committed by fellow community members and publicly 'calling out' the offenders.

The dichotomy emerges: either you are deemed a good person, deserving of protection, or you are labeled a bad person, subject to scrutiny for anything you dare to express. The consequence? Your on-campus life becomes exceptionally challenging and you may be ultimately canceled.

“Life in a call-out culture requires constant vigilance, fear, and self- censorship. Many in the audience may feel sympathy for the person being shamed but are afraid to speak up, yielding the false impression that the audience is unanimous in its condemnation.”

iGen and Paranoid Parenting

The reality is that the responsibility does not lie primarily with the universities. The two authors say that already in 2017 it was cleat that the trend towards demanding more safety, avoiding debates, connecting speech with violence, fostering tribalism, and related issues stemmed from two distinct sources: parents and social media.

Parents, in the present day, tend to have fewer children than in the past. Consequently, they channel all their resources, time, and affection toward their children. This often leads to overprotectiveness, strict control over their whereabouts, and a desire to ensure their safety.

Furthermore, these parents grew up during times marked by kidnappings, wars, terrorism, school bullying, and face-to-face confrontations. They genuinely do not wish their (often single) child to undergo similar experiences.

Parents are okay if children spend more time playing indoor videogames because they think roaming unsupervised in the street is dangerous. The authors notice that:

“iGen spends less time going out with friends, more time interacting with parents, and much more time interacting with screens.”

Social media exacerbates the issue. It provides an alternate dimension where they can escape their fears and interactions with people they may not prefer. This comfort within the digital realm leads them to demand that universities offer a similar sense of security.

Solutions?

In a nutshell, going back one generation. The two authors suggest that both parents and universities need to change this trend:

  1. For parents: Allowing children to experience unsupervised situations, enabling them to learn how to cope with anxiety, frustration, boredom, and anger on their own.
  2. For universities: Prioritize the pursuit of academic truth and to foster diverse opinions in order to impart the best knowledge, rather than accommodating tribalism, safetyism, a call-out culture, and most importantly, censorship.

My Take Today

The subtitle of the book, How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure, alludes, among other things, to how students are unprepared to face the 'real world.' They live within their bubbles, on college campuses that increasingly resemble exclusive golf clubs, affiliating primarily with their identity groups and lacking the tools to accept or debate different ideas.

A couple of years ago, my hope for resolving this situation was somewhat optimistic: 'Sooner or later, universities will realize again that the real world doesn't coddle people but challenges them.'

However, the dilemma now lies in the fact that what was once known as the 'real world' is now increasingly resembling universities, with safe spaces, political correctness, and instances of firing employees for expressing controversial thoughts. Corporations as well fire employees for seemingly disrespectful tweets or if they fail to align with movements like BLM. Most corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley mirror elite college campuses, equipped with similar amenities, speech codes, and safe spaces.

Rather than being challenged by the harsh reality, students graduating from elite universities are likely to enter corporate environments that prioritize concepts such as 'social justice' and the like. I am skeptical that they will ever truly confront the real world. In fact, I am concerned that the real world is progressively becoming a coddling environment, even for adults.