The Mod | “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

Tuesday, 09 Apr 2019

You do not need to be a Christian to believe in the antithesis. Of course, the Bible gives lots of grounds for insisting that believers (those who belong to Christ) and unbelievers (those who remain part of the first Adam’s fallen race) are distinct. From the very promises God made to Eve and the Serpent after the fall in Genesis 3, the Old Testament laws that set the Israelites apart from their pagan neighbors, to the New Testament’s instruction about marriage and fellowship, Christians have all sorts of warrant for maintaining a separate identity. The Dutch theologian and politician, Abraham Kuyper, supplied the intellectual arsenal for such separateness—what some might call tribalism—when he applied the idea of regeneration (however unevenly) to human endeavors and insisted that Christians and non-Christians, thanks to regeneration, see the world differently.

The downside of an emphasis on the differences between belief and unbelief is that Christians sometimes engage in bitter fights over matters that may involve compromise with the world or unbelief. Conservative Protestant opposition to theological modernism was one such example. In an effort to accommodate the Bible, theology, and church life to advances in science and cultural awareness, liberals, according to conservatives, had crossed the line and followed the world instead of remaining faithful to the gospel. For some, this vigilance to maintain the proper borders between the church and the world are needlessly combative and even cruel. One Protestant blogger recently faulted Reformed Protestants for attempting “to manufacture a pure church via unpleasant, protracted debates over non-essential matters.” “We bear down on individual people and crush them,” the author wrote, “rather than understanding their weakness.”

If Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are to be believed, the church has nothing on the current intellectual and academic world when it comes to tribalism, incivility, and hyper-sensitivity. Their new book, The Coddling of the American Mind is a useful review of recent campus protests by so-called social justice warriors and leftist activists, along with a sociological and psychological diagnosis of the cultural assumptions and practices that contributed to campus sensitivities. The book also includes recommendations for parents, teachers, university faculty and administrators for preparing children for the sort of intellectual debate that has (and should) characterize higher education.

Coddling is an easy read, complete with bullet-point chapter summaries, that starts with the three ideas that are responsible for the current state of campus life. They are: 1) what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; 2) always trust your feelings; and 3) life is a battle between good people and evil people. Readers of this magazine might well regard the last two notions as inherently dubious if only because Protestants of some theological depth understand the unreliability of feelings and that dividing the world between good and bad people is simplistic even for Christians. The first idea—what is harmful makes us weaker—may seem sensible, but the authors use the analogy of food allergies to show that the rise in such cases comes from the overprotection of parents. Instead of children building up immunity to a host of potentially harmful foods, sheltering children has prevented the development of immune systems adequate to withstand legumes. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that this is a perfect metaphor for what has happened to a particular generation of young Americans; today’s college students were not exposed to challenging ideas that could have toughened them for advanced study and campus politics.

From the discussion of these ideas, the authors retell in embarrassing detail the campus controversies that gained national news coverage between the years of 2015 and 2017. This section should be familiar to anyone who has followed the news, especially from right-of-center outlets, though the authors’ documentation of the events themselves and the ensuing media commentary makes the book a valuable reference documenting these controversies. Some incidents resulted from students inviting provocative speakers to campus, like the protest that erupted when student groups brought Milos Yianopoulos to the University of California at Berkeley. In other cases, like at Evergreen State University, student activists hounded faculty members like Bret Weinstein, for questioning and failing to participate in campus events.

The book’s largest section diagnoses changes in American society, from parenting techniques and schooling to the omnipresence of screens and the popularity of social media, that account for the three ideas that have infected a generation of college students. One factor is the increasing polarization of partisan politics since the 1980s. Another is the rise of depression and suicide among young people and the correlation between such incidents and the use of social media. Others include “paranoid parenting,” the decline of play and school recess, school policies designed to ensure safe places, and rising expectations for social justice. The authors also include recommendations to remedy such harmful circumstances. These include detailed and sensible advice for parents, school and college administrators, and politicians and legislators.

Some readers, with a politically conservative disposition, may be disappointed in the book for not blaming campus politics on the left. Lukianoff and Haidt certainly leave room for such a reading of their data and examples, but they also resist faulting either side in America’s cultural and political divides. They see many of the factors, as well as the basic premises they diagnose, as well intentioned. Parents, faculty, and administrators who have supported those good aims to protect kids and avoid giving offense, however, have not remembered the equally important characteristics that either contribute to critical learning or to meaningful human interaction—such as being able to disagree.

This book may also have some relevance for Christians. To be sure, believers who look at the evidence that Lukianoff and Haidt marshal may take comfort from recognizing that the church is not this bad (though how different Christian colleges are from private or public institutions would be good to know). At the same time, the book is a reminder that Christians live in a common culture with non-believers and share a host of institutions and spaces that are neither religious nor anti-religious. Thinking about the shared tasks of rearing children, choosing schools and colleges, using social media, and engaging in partisan politics could be a welcome check on people who are prone to spiritualize endeavors that are as human as they are spiritual.




Dr. D. G. Hart is the Distinguished Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College and the Novakovic Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.  He is the author of several books, including From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservativism (Eerdmans, 2011).  


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