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
Penguin Press, $28, 338 pages
As the world knows, all is not well on many American college campuses, where the culture “has become more ideologically uniform, compromising the ability of scholars to seek truth, and of students to learn from a broad range of thinkers,” as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, the authors of “The Coddling of the American Mind” write.
There’s been the concomitant growth of a “callout culture,” in which “anyone can be publicly shamed for saying something well-intentioned that someone else interprets uncharitably” — a gift from the campuses to the wider culture at large.
Interestingly, as reported by James Freeman in The Wall Street Journal, a new national survey of undergraduates at both private and public universities finds that a majority believe that their professors use class time to expound on their own personal and political views; that they felt intimidated from expressing their own views in class if they contradicted the professors; and they also “felt intimidated in expressing themselves when their views conflicted with those of their classmates.”
Does coddling lead to indoctrination? A basic problem, as the authors put it, is that “kids grow up more slowly these days.” That’s no doubt true, at least in part, of the kids discussed here, who simply have no need to grow up quickly, and who go off to college for another four-plus years of slow growth, largely paid for by parents and borrowing. Many among them, of course, as has always been the case, make the most of the experience, learning as much as they can, charting a rough course for the years ahead.
But a significant number have only the vaguest idea of what they want in life, what it takes to get it, what to do with the new ideas being thrown at them, often in the form of strange new subjects, with the whole Western canon, dependent on dead old white men, increasingly crowded out by more exotic offerings. (Except, as is frequently the case, if the dead old white man is named Karl Marx.)
One result is that impressionable young students will naturally begin to question the beliefs and values they bring from home. And because it seems the in thing to do, they may well be persuaded to replace those values with various alternatives, as their indoctrinators, faculty members and therefore to be respected, urge them to do.
The great expressed concern on the campuses today, the authors point out, is the safety of “fragile” students — so much so that swarms of administrators devote themselves to “safteyism,” shielding those fragile students from any words, deeds or actions that might be deemed to upset their delicate mental balance.
But perhaps those administrators, like the British at Singapore in 1942, have their guns trained in the wrong direction. Perhaps the greatest need is for the protection of students from proselytizing academics, who often preach perversity as the new morality, and traditional morality as the new evil.
The authors of this well-written, deeply researched and timely analysis have no ideological axes to grind, condemning extremists of all stripes. Greg Lukianoff is president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business. They write as pragmatists, concerned that the “safety culture” on campus is damaging the lives of too many students.
Solutions? If part of the problem is in fact that kids are taking longer to grow up, the authors offer several proposals: Establishing the “gap year” as a new national norm, for instance, taking a year off after high school and before entering college, working away from home. “The year after high school is also an ideal time for teens to perform national service as a civic rite of passage.”
They applaud the work of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in this area. Gen. McChrystal chairs the Service Year Alliance that helps recent graduates find full-time paid jobs on projects benefiting American communities.
And finally, there’s another suggestion, especially for young men and women long on potential but perhaps short on funds or uncertain about the future and their place in it. This writer entered college at 16, muddled around for a couple of years, then joined the Marine Corps. Upon discharge, he went back to college and found it much easier going, on all fronts.
In all, several gap years, well spent, and highly recommended, whether it’s the Marine Corps, Army, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard. And when you get out, they’ll help with your tuition.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).