'The Coddling of the American Mind'

Co-author of new book discusses its critique of societal values, how young people are taught to think about the world and free exchange of ideas in higher education.

September 4, 2018
 

More than 30 years ago, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind became a cultural phenomenon with its critique of American higher education as dominated by trendy concepts rather than ideas truly tested by time.

This academic year arrives with a new critique of American higher education and American society, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Penguin Random House). You may recognize the title from a much discussed Atlantic article by the authors (discussed below). The book discusses what its authors see as an unwillingness by college students to engage in ideas with which they disagree.

And while some of the blame in the book goes to students and academic leaders, much of it is placed on parents and society that the authors argue are not preparing students for challenges to their ideas and challenges in life. The authors are Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Jonathan Haidt, the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Lukianoff responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: Tensions over free speech in American society (think of Nazis marching in Skokie or the push to ban the burning of the American flag) are not new. How do you see the current "coddling" as different and dangerous?

A: A couple of preliminary points: Even though I am a First Amendment advocate and the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, this book is not primarily about freedom of speech or the First Amendment. If you want a deep dive into those topics, I recommend my books Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate or Freedom From Speech, or, for more recent commentary, check out FIRE’s blog.

Second, neither Jonathan Haidt nor I are great fans of the title of the book. It wasn’t our first choice. It was chosen by the editors at The Atlantic when we published our cover story of the same name in 2015. “Disempowered” and “Arguing Toward Misery” were titles I liked much more for the book and article, respectively, but our editors were right that the current title is well, less boring. That said, other than in the title, the words “coddle” or “coddling” don’t make many appearances in the book. In our relatively short discussion of it, we explain that all “coddling” means in this context is simply overprotection, which can result in unforeseen negative consequences.

As for what the differences are between this moment in the history of censorship and others, it’s important to recognize that the desire to censor is the norm in human history. Left to our devices, human beings punish heretics, execute blasphemers, ostracize dissenters, give preference to the views of those in their in-group, and often don’t respect the rights of those in the out-group. What’s most interesting about the rationales for censorship is their continuity, not their perceived differences.

But, in the book, we do note one difference in the rationales for censorship on campus that we saw emerging around 2013 and 2014. A lot of them started to be medicalized -- that is, rather than people saying that a book or speaker is offensive, we began seeing people place more reliance on quasi-medical rationales for censorship. Speech was being portrayed primarily as a potential psychological harm, sometimes akin to violence. These arguments are by no means entirely novel, but the emphasis on concepts of trauma has become more pronounced over the last five years compared to what I saw earlier in my career.

Q: Free speech has historically been seen as a tool of those seeking to change American society. Why do you think many college students don't see free speech rights as helping them, but as hurting them?

A: The First Amendment and freedom of speech, to a degree, are victims of their own success. It’s possible for people today to take for granted their own speech rights. As a result, a primary argument used by free speech defenders -- that you should defend freedom of speech because it could be your speech censored next -- simply doesn’t resonate. Many students probably have a hard time imagining their own opinions running afoul of campus censors, even though sometimes the most progressive opinions do. But I’ve never been a huge fan of the “defend free speech because you may be next” argument. My perspective on free speech is simply that it’s valuable to know what other people really think or believe, especially when what they think or believe is challenging, troubling, or deeply out of line with prevailing point of views.

I think what we are also seeing are the simple results of 30-plus years of anti-free-speech arguments being made by the supporters of campus speech codes. If students today see freedom of speech primarily as an impediment to progress, that is probably because they simply haven’t been taught about its essential role in defending the rights of minorities and progressive causes. Campuses do too little to explain to students the value of freedom of speech, academic freedom and freedom of inquiry.

Q: You relate the ideas in your book to trends in parenting, psychology and political discourse. How do those trends influence campus life, and what can be done about them?

A: Now we are getting to the heart of the book. The book is not primarily about freedom of speech. Rather, it’s a social science detective story. Haidt and I try to get to the bottom of why there was an increase in the rates of anxiety and depression on campuses in the past several years. We also wanted to figure out why campus politics and national politics had grown more divisive, starting even before the election of Donald Trump.

In investigating these phenomena, we look at six causal threads, and these include: increased political polarization both nationally and locally, the rise of a paranoid parenting style for the kind of parents who routinely send their kids to top colleges, decreased time allowed for free play (probably one of the most interesting findings in the book), social media, campus bureaucratization, corporatization, and, of course, the rise of an isolating version of identity politics.

These are the crucial themes of the book, and it’s why our original title for the book was “Disempowered.” We believe we have unwittingly taught a generation of students the mental habits of anxious, depressed, polarized people, and we need to rethink how we do everything from parenting in K-12, through, of course, higher education.

Q: You write about the importance of punishing those who disrupt speech. Officials at Middlebury and Claremont McKenna Colleges say that they did so. What do you make of the way they handled those disruptions?

A: Well, let’s start with what we think we know at Middlebury. About six weeks after the protest at Middlebury, the college handed down final sanctions for a total of 74 students (out of about 200 who allegedly participated). The sanctions were for actions ranging from the initial shout-down to blocking people in the parking lot. The college says it was unable to identify any of the roughly six people responsible for physical violence. Of those 74 sanctioned individuals, most received probation, none were suspended, and fewer than 10 will have anything noted on their transcript, assuming the terms of probation are met. The thing that really needed to happen there was for the students who assaulted and injured Allison Stanger to be identified and punished. The fact that this didn’t happen set a precedent that should be troubling to anyone who cares about free speech at Middlebury College.

Claremont McKenna, on the other hand, punished fewer students but imposed harsher sanctions. Out of the roughly 250 protesters who allegedly obstructed the Heather Mac Donald event, a total of seven students faced discipline, with five facing suspensions of up to one year, and two others receiving probation. I’m hopeful that sent the message that tactics like preventing students from entering a place where someone is giving a speech is not acceptable.

We are far more concerned with the way both the University of California, Berkeley, and the town of Berkeley handled the Milo Yiannopoulos riots early last year. While the police understood they could claim it was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who engaged in criminal activity that day, the fact that only two people were arrested virtually guaranteed later future violence in the Berkeley community. This is precisely what happened. As we argue in the book, we must be very tolerant to freedom of opinion, even opinion we hate, but we must show no tolerance toward physical violence.

Q: Your book notes (as many who criticize "coddling" do not) that some faculty members of the left have been attacked for their speech. Why is the debate about this issue one that so often assumes the lack of support for free speech is only a problem on the left?

A: I guess we must talk to different people. In the circles I most often frequent, practically nobody thinks that hostility to free speech is unique to one side of the political spectrum. Universities, of course, lean decidedly to the left, so you shouldn’t be surprised if there is censorship on campus that comes largely from the dominant political ideology. But a major trend we have seen just in the past two years is the rise in cases of right-wing outrage mobs going after left-wing professors for what they said on Facebook, Twitter or, in one big case, on Fox News.

We saw an early glimmer of these sorts of cases in 2013 with David Guth after he was suspended by the University of Kansas for an anti-NRA tweet following the shootings at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. In the past two years, there was University of Iowa professor Sarah Bond, who received violent threats for noting that the white supremacist movements that praised the classical ideal of bare marble statues likely didn’t realize the statues were originally painted; there was Professor Lisa Durden, who was fired from Essex County College in New Jersey for defending a Black Lives Matter gathering on Fox News; and, most recently, Rutgers subjected Professor James Livingston (who is white himself) to discipline for his exasperated tweets about noisy white children in a Harlem restaurant and gentrification.

Q: American colleges are full of incidents that upset many people, particularly members of minority groups. Whether there are speakers who offend, blackface parties or other incidents, this is a reality of college life. You write critically of the way many college leaders and students respond. How should they respond?

A: If Inside Higher Ed readers are under the impression that the primary national debates about freedom of speech on campus revolve around blackface parties or other offensive expression, they should really read our book. In it, we talk about, for example, a program at Northern Michigan University that threatened dozens of students with punishment if they told their friends they were depressed or considering suicide. We talk about multiple examples where professors ran into trouble for writing op-eds or scholarly articles that we believe would have been considered largely uncontroversial not even 10 years ago.

We devote an entire chapter to cases that fit practically no one’s stereotype of free speech controversies on campus but that often revolve around administrators’ desire to control campus at an unreasonable level of strictness, resulting in tiny speech zones and other protest policies. And we talk about many examples by off-campus advocates to get -- usually -- left-wing professors fired.

So, with that context in mind, we think presidents should consider the following:

  • Adopting some version of the Chicago statement on freedom of speech and academic freedom;
  • Reviewing their policies for speech codes that could be used to suppress speech on campus (so far 42 colleges have earned “green light” ratings in our review);
  • Pre-commitment: making it clear in advance that professors will not be fired and students will not be disciplined for opinions expressed, for example, online;
  • Not giving in to outrage mobs from either side of the spectrum when they come for a professor or student;
  • Having a high tolerance for diversity of opinion, but no tolerance for violence; and
  • Providing serious programs both at orientation and beyond to help students understand and prepare for the difficult process of debate and discussion on campus, and to understand the reason why we need to believe so strongly in academic freedom and epistemic humility. We can’t expect students to value free speech or academic freedom if they’ve never been taught anything about the deep philosophy that undergirds those ideas.

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