Review: The Coddling of the American Mind

xthe-coddling-of-the-american-mind.jpg.pagespeed.ic.mYdHv7g-kSWhat is the culture like on our University Campuses? This is in an interesting question for me as a pastor in a student congregation (and also father of a teenager). A recent book that examines university culture is The Coddling of the American Mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

Last year I read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and found that very stimulating. He talked about how much of our decision making is ruled by our emotions and that morality varies across the political spectrum. Suddenly I felt better able to understand why the left and right disagree so much. So I was interested to hear about his new book (written along with Greg Lukianoff, a lawyer and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education).

In The Coddling of the American Mind, the authors argue that universities in the U.S. are dominated by three untruths:

  • The untruth of fragility: What doesn’t kill you make you weaker
  • The untruth of emotional reasoning: Always trust your feelings
  • The untruth of us versus them: Life is a battle between good people and bad people

These untruths together mean that on the campus students are being “protected” from ideas they might disagree with or find hurtful. And if they feel hurt they are supposed to think that they have been harmed. And the problem is bad people who need to be excluded from campus and “disinvited” from speaking events. In summary, there is a culture of “safetyism”.

The author’s tell several fascinating and disturbing stories of academics losing their jobs due to student pressure or riots on campus because of inadvertent emails. Historically these attacks have been from the right and left, but more recently it has been much more from the left. Interestingly, the authors both identify as left leaning thinkers who tend to vote Democrat (never Republican). I don’t think they are Christians.

They talk about the origins of this culture and argue that it’s not good for students and will lead to all sorts of problems in the future, such as fragility, oppression and stunted thinking. They didn’t comment much on universities outside the U.S. but I heard from someone that they might be doing some research or writing about Australia.

I found it all interesting – especially the idea of the origin of evil in untruth three: evil comes from evil people; as compared to the Christian view which has evil in all of us (Romans 3). Jonathan and Greg’s solutions contain a lot of wisdom, with some crossover with the Christian worldview. For example they quote a saying: “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” Of course, there’s nothing quite like the gospel for addressing the three great untruths: God grows us through suffering, our feelings are not trustworthy compared to the truth of God’s word, and we are all evil and need the gospel of forgiveness.

All up it was a good read for helping me understand culture better (not something I’m naturally good at). Hopefully thinking about this will help me understand real people and teach the Bible with more sensitivity and relevance.