New book by Lukianoff and Haidt on the fragility of the young

September 5, 2018 • 12:45 pm

Cooling my heels at the airport, I call your attention to a new book by Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University. The book: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. (That jawbreaker of a title was obviously taken from Allan Bloom’s surprising 1987 bestseller,The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students).

The screenshot below will take you to the new book’s Amazon site:

You’ll know their views from their 2015 Atlantic piece with the same title, but they’ve expanded and revised it, as you can see from the CBS News video below. In the meantime, the New York Times has, surprisingly, given the book a good review along with a related book by William Egginton  (click on screenshot below to see it):

An excerpt of the review:

Lukianoff and Haidt offer a variety of compelling explanations for the rise of the “safetyism” culture that so dominates elite colleges and, increasingly, much journalistic discourse along the lines of The Nation’s editorial note. One of the most intriguing ideas they present is the Australian psychologist Nick Haslam’s notion of “concept creep.” Haslam found that since the 1980s key concepts in clinical and social psychology, including abuse, bullying, trauma and prejudice, have expanded both “downward” and “outward” to apply to less severe circumstances and to take in novel phenomena. “By the early 2000s,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, “the concept of ‘trauma’ within parts of the therapeutic community had crept down so far that it included anything ‘experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful.’”

. . . Lukianoff and Haidt notice something unprecedented and a lot more frightening: a generation, including its most privileged and educated members — especially these members — that has been politically and socially “stunted” by a false and deepening belief in its own fragility. This is a generation engaged in a meritocratic “arms race” of epic proportions, that has racked up the most hours of homework (and screen time) in history but also the fewest ever of something so simple as unsupervised outdoor play. If that sounds trivial, it shouldn’t. “When adult-supervised activities crowd out free play, children are less likely to develop the art of association,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, along with other social skills central to the making of good citizens capable of healthy compromise. Worse, the consequences of a generation unable or disinclined to engage with ideas and interlocutors that make them uncomfortable are dire for society, and open the door — accessible from both the left and the right — to various forms of authoritarianism.

. . .  is that if we are going to beat back the regressive populism, mendacity and hyperpolarization in which we are currently mired, we are going to need an educated citizenry fluent in a wise and universal liberalism. This liberalism will neither play down nor fetishize identity grievances, but look instead for a common and generous language to build on who we are more broadly, and to conceive more boldly what we might be able to accomplish in concert. . . If the American university is not the space to cultivate this strong and supple liberalism, then we are in deep and lasting trouble.

Indeed. So don’t chew my tuchas when I keep kvetching about the ludicrous behavior that takes place on American campuses. I get a lot of comments and email saying stuff like, “Why don’t you stop writing about these trivial issues on campuses and deal with the really bad stuff that’s going on?” They mean, of course, the behavior of “President” Trump and his minions, whose perfidy is playing out just today as Brett Kavanaugh is being grilled as a potential Supreme Court justice. (He’ll get though, and if you want to make a bet that he won’t, email me.)

But liberal blogger and writers are nearly all consumed with dissing Trump, so I don’t need to; and my intense dislike (nay, hatred) for him and his cronies is amply witnessed on this site. So if you want to see Trump-dissing, just go over to HuffPo, Salon, or The New York Times. Being situated on a campus, I’m especially concerned with today’s college students, who will of course be tomorrow’s leaders. And major liberal media, such as the New York Times and the New Yorker, are already falling prey to balkanizing identity politics and the outrage culture.

Have a look at this 5-minute video in which Lukianoff and Haidt explain their thesis to interviewers at CBS News.

50 thoughts on “New book by Lukianoff and Haidt on the fragility of the young

  1. I would agree with this as far as the present.

    OTOH, I am watching with great joy and excitement the participation of the Marjorie Stoneman Davis grads in the political system. Despite everything that’s happened to them, from the murders they witnessed to the disrespect and scorn heaped on them by people trying to shut them up and shut them out, they are cutting to the chase and getting their points across. They are succeeding in their effort to motivate others to participate.

    I can’t imagine any of them feeling fragile, especially when they can see evidence that their efforts are paying off.

    And, I would love to be there when they make it into college after their year off, confronting the snowflakes. Their example will shine, and their voices will not be stilled.

    Nothing succeeds like success. If they are able to get Gillum elected in FL, and others of their candidates in other places, they will know they can do it, because they already have.


    1. I think you meant Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, no? There is a Marjory Stoneman Davis high school in Chicago, which probably has similar problems.

      Also, what didn’t you mean by “confronting the snowflakes”? Aren’t the students from the FL school anti-gun? “Confronting snowflakes” sounds like something a pro-gun nut would say.

      1. Confronting the snowflakes does not have to include violence. I’m talking about in classes, confronting those who don’t want to be in the same room with a different opinion from theirs, in whatever context.

        These kids know that they don’t have to be afraid of others’ opinions. I love how they’ve handled people who have tried to shut them up.


        1. OIC. You’re right. I’ve been impressed by their fierceness in the face of such nastiness, too. The tragedy of our times is that it can take such a hideous thing to bring it out in people.

        2. A lot of these kids started off in an environment where they did not know how to conduct civil debate with each other, or their elders.
          After a while, such a person cannot process the idea that someone simply disagrees with them on an issue. They react by immediately taking the rebuttal as a personal insult.

          I think sportsmanship plays into it as well. Just the ability to enter a friendly conflict, do your best, still lose, but take the loss gracefully, is a wonderful life skill. Many of us have noticed that our kids are being somewhat insulated from win/loss situations these days. I do not believe that is healthy.

          I guess these two points tie into life skills that are better learned as a child than an adult.

  2. In 1992 humanist Wendy Kaminer wrote a book called I’m Disfunctional, You’re Disfunctional: the Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help fashions in which she made a similar point. The approach and attitudes of dubious therapeutic systems were starting to go outside of psychology groups and infiltrate the larger culture in disfunctional ways. She brilliantly made many of the same points these writers are making 25 years later. Obviously, things didn’t get better.

    High recommend for the book, by the way. Kaminer is an incisive thinker and engaging writer, and provides a perspective closer to the root of the problem.

  3. When I think of a generation I’ve encountered that seems to be “unable or disinclined to engage with ideas and interlocutors that make them uncomfortable” – it isn’t the youth of today, it is their grandparents. I agree we have a problem that needs fixed, but I think the blame is misplaced.

  4. The other day I was talking with a friend who has kid who’s nine years old. She told me she “thinks he has really bad anxiety problems.” When I asked why, her response was, “he was crying because he has to go back to school this week.”

    I’ve run into this over and over in the past few years, as has my friend, who is a guidance counselor at a high school. Parents who think their children have ADD and are medicating them because they sometimes don’t pay attention in class; parents who think their kids suffer from anxiety or depression because they don’t want to go to school or occasionally throw a tantrum. Many of these parents have taken their kids to doctors to get medication. At the high school, my friend finds that parents complain their kid is being “bullied” any time he or she is excluded from something or comes home feeling sad because someone said something that hurt their feelings. One parent asked to meet with my friend because someone didn’t save her kid a table at lunch time, which she felt was bullying.

    It seems any time a kid is sad, angry, anxious, having difficulty concentrating or sitting still for a whole eight hours at school, people think something is terribly wrong. I genuinely worry about the kids growing up in this world.

    1. to clarify, my guidance counselor friend is not the same person who told me she thinks their kid suffers from anxiety. That was unclear from the way I wrote my comment.

    2. I have heard similar anecdotes from educator friends. One is a professor at a fairly fancy-schmancy liberal arts school, and said the amount of anxiety they witness among the freshmen every year is unreal (recently, as opposed to the past).

      I also have a very active kiddo who I’m sure some people would like to label as ADD. Does he like sitting in a chair for eight hours? No, of course not. He’d rather be hunting rabbits or making a trail through the forest. So we try to make the most of our non-school hours and focus on patience for those in-school. I think parents could do with some patience as well. Most of his irritating behaviors are traits that if cultivated will serve him well as an adult.

      1. Many schools here are designed to be optimized (though not optimal) learning environments for girls. Anyone who fidgets, loses attention or can’t sit still is “disruptive” and is either medicated or is made to feel they need to be. I have two sons who suffered through this. I would not agree to have them medicated and wasn’t sympathetic to the claims about their behavior. When you restrict a boy to 15 minutes of activity over eight hours and punish them when they act like boys, you wind up with kids who hate school. Though both of mine did well we saw many failures.

        I do NOT have patience with anyone who gets agro with me about distinguishing boys in this regard. Biology matters and boys are not the same as girls.

        1. I shan’t test your patience, but I have enough rowdy nieces and know enough bookish boys to agree that the schools are optimized for quiet, bookish and obedient children.

          We’ve got a male teacher this year, which will be nice. There are far too few during the elementary years.

        2. When my son was in 3rd grade, I was picking him up at the after-school daycare, and found he was under a table, and both of the workers were not happy. It turned out, he and another boy were horsing around at the snack table after school and the daycare ladies thought the appropriate punishment was to not take the kids to the gym for playtime! My son was upset and got under the table, refusing to come out. The ladies were expecting an apology from me, but instead we went home and I called the school principal the next day. He (Principal)issued an order that the kids were to be given gym or playground time EVERY day without fail.

          1. Recess detentions were a popular punishment in my elementary school years ago, too.

            Also, kids were often “punished” collectively in bad weather, which IMO is usually even worse. “Indoor recess” was at the whim of the teachers doing the yard duty that day.

    3. I’m uncomfortable with ADD talk these days, and the hurry to give kids medicine. I wonder how many kids really do have genuine ADD, and I wonder if being labeled ADD helps kids at all.

      I’m asking all this because I was a kid back in the 1940’s, and I really do have ADD/ADHD (which has not improved with age and still causes no end of trouble). It’s comorbid with Tourette’s Syndrome for me as well.

      And I really did get bullied. Try being a kid with your shoulder and face twitching while a bunch of kids are laughing and calling names. Try being the kid who got roughed up on the way home from school.

      And my mother scolded me for “being bad on purpose”. There was a time when kids were not overdiagnosed and medicated. My ADD was seen as me being a bad little girl who deserved to be punished.

      So here I am, an old geezer about to celebrate my 77th birthday tomorrow and wondering which batch of kids are better off. Kids like me who were not recognized as having a neurological disorder and were punished rather than given appropriate treatment; or kids who are misdiagnosed and mis-medicated and mislabeled.

      Is there nothing in between? As I sit here looking back at a life of failure after failure and being told it was my choice to do it all wrong, I’m thinking that there are better ways to manage ADD than all this stigmatizing and medicating, and this misunderstanding and punishing.

      1. Congratulations on making it to “old geezerhood” despite ADD and Tourette’s. We are of an age as I was born in 1941.

        Back in the days when everything was viewed as “dysfunctional”, I can remember talking with my three kids about all families being “dysfunctional” in some way. We’ve all had our various forms of punishment, trauma, accolades and love. No family is precisely the same, nor should it strive to be.

        I think we have gotten way too enmeshed in the need to categorize differences in order to “correct” or “cure” them. We’ve cured ourselves into “1984”. Very often children are diagnosed as requiring “special education” in order to remove them as disruptors from the classroom. “Special ed” does not always benefit the student. Why take a multiplicity of “problem” children, shove them in a room together, and imagine we’re providing each of them with “special education”.

        Not all children like regimentation. Some require it. Some children can read almost anything. Others are dyslexic. Not all children want to be shoved into groups. Others are uncomfortable if separated. Etc. Would that we could accommodate the differing needs of all children.

      2. I’m sorry to hear of your experience!

        Of course there’s a middle ground: helping the kids who truly do have ADD and other learning disabilities, and ensuring that kids who don’t have such issues are not labelled with them and not medicated. I have a severe learning disability and ADD (though I was never diagnosed until college, as my failure to show up to or take class seriously was never a problem until college because I still received great grades based on intelligence and no need to try). The problem is labelling every little problem as some kind of pathology, and then forcing treatment, especially when those problems are quite normal for children of a certain age and/or sex.

      3. IMO, the tragedy is in part due to insufficient mental health resources in general. If everyone could see a specialist, I figure less of the over-diagnosis will happen. Particularly with clinical psychologists involved. (Paradoxically this might get worse if they gain prescription privileges in more jurisdictions – which I am also in favour of so have to look out for.)

        As my sister (who is a CP) puts it: how many credit hours in the classroom and in clinical courses does an MD have? It is something like 18, all undergraduate approximately. And yet family physicians can diagnosis and treat psychiatric conditions.

  5. Whatever happened to the old wives’ saying that kids oughta eat a pound of dirt by the time they’re twelve?

    I agree with Lukianoff & Haidt’s premise; kids today are coddled. Still, I’m a bit skeptical, too, since (in my experience at least) every generation tends to think those that come after are coddled.

    My parents, who were children of the Great Depression, certainly thought we Baby Boomers were (which was true). And my paternal grandparents, who fought in and suffered through the ravages of The Great War in the old country, thought their kids had it relatively easy even in the Depression (which was true, too). And those grandparents, who doted on their grandchildren, nonetheless had a term for how soft we were (which translated in English to “little American cake-eaters”). Seems we’re all just Four Yorkshiremen at heart.

    Even so, as to the upcoming generation, I’m hopeful that, as another group of four Brits put it, the kids are alright:

    1. Someone said that kids no longer walk to school ,but are driven there by their mums ,eg the school run .
      When i was about 8 i used to walk the few miles to Ironbrige to spend my pocket money on a model kit .

      1. I wish I could let kiddo walk more, but our road has no shoulder, drivers speed recklessly, and we’re ten miles from town. Instead, he rides the bus for 45 minutes. I do send him off into the forest to play and he takes the dog if he’s going far.

        1. Plus, if you let them walk around the neighborhood unattended, CPS might take them away from you for several months while they investigate you for “neglect.”

          Read some horror stories there, like the one about the kid who was taken from his parents for a whole month while they were investigated for leaving him unattended while he….played basketball in their driveway.

          There are many more stories like this that aren’t in the link above.

    2. In the military, we had a lot of issues with people who had never been hit really hard. So that became another whole level of things they had to learn to deal with, that past generations had more experience with in childhood.

    3. “I’m a bit skeptical, too, since (in my experience at least) every generation tends to think those that come after are coddled.”

      In Western societies this started at least about 3,000 years ago. If I remember well, in the Iliad old Orestes claims that the present heroes (Ulysses, Achilles, etc.) were ok but could not compare with those of his youth, when they were fighting the war of the Titans.

  6. “stunted” by a false and deepening belief in its own fragility.

    I find that attitude to be associated or correlated with “blank slate” beliefs – apparently “the environment” is very dangerous in many subtle ways.

    As a big believer in “every human characteristic is mostly genetic” I think humans are really pretty tough, physically and mentally, since we’re descended from the survivors of hundred of millions of years of REAL trauma.

  7. I was impressed by the short interview. Way to go, CBS!

    The authors examples are good demonstrations of how these “bad ideas and good intentions” go way beyond deplatforming speakers on college campuses. The widening of the definition of “trauma” is a great example. As far as I know, it used to mean a severe injury but now it is used to label virtually any kind of bad experience.

  8. A “wise and universal liberalism?” Seriously? Haidt is supposed to believe in the evolutionary roots of morality, right? Where does he come up with this stuff? He just hops back and forth over the is/ought divide like everyone else since Westermarck without so much as a word of explanation. How, exactly, is a “wise and universal liberalism” supposed to promote the survival and reproduction of the genes responsible for that fine sentiment? In the end, it’s nothing but a whim, flim flam tarted up with noble words, although the whim no longer has anything to do with the reasons it exists to begin with. Why, exactly, are the rest of us supposed to pay any attention to his whims one way or the other? There’s not an “evolutionary moralist” out there today who doesn’t believe, deep down, in his heart of hearts, in objective morality, no matter what they claim to the contrary. We’re living in an asylum.

  9. I’m so tired of Boomers writing articles and books this where they claim superior toughness over the following generations. If the following generations are fragile or neurotic then it’s because there’s no damn safety net, no social security or functional minimum wage like boomers had. Boomers are the sheltered fragile generation, and I’m sick of hearing those conservative snowflakes bitching about how everyone under 50 doesn’t have enough grit…like me son. Yeah Boomers were draft dodgers and roasted their brains on hedonism and drugs, I’m sick of it

    1. So Haidt says “kids are tougher than they think they are and don’t need coddling.” And you manage to interpret that as somehow the exact opposite.

      1. I don’t like how I see these articles widely circulated by the older conservatives who mindlessly want to cut social services and after school programs, because of the catchphrase “kids need to get more grit.” I don’t like helicopter parenting, but it’s gentler and an improvement over than the older extreme from when we had less civilization. Crazy conservatives, yall might as well strip your kid and tell him he needs to go bear hunting and survive in the woods for a month or you’ll send him to an orphanage.

          1. Well, to be fair, his most recent comment talked about conservatives circulating the article, which may mean passing it around to bolster their preconceived notions even if the author (Haidt) wouldn’t agree with them. And that might happen.

  10. Kids. In the words of Imagine Dragons – “Just another product of today”.

    It seems there is a yin / yang situation here. On the one hand, yes, there probably is increased fragility. On the other, I don’t know if it’s so much that kids today are coddled, or that they are born and raised to compete at all times, to be on an ever-present virtual reality ‘stage’, sort of like pageant kids. Even the SJW / virtue signaling lifestyle can be seen as an inevitable outcome of playing to the universal audience at all times, being ever onstage – showing off one’s morality in The Talent Portion, lol.

    The yin / yang aspect being that, there is a lot of vulnerability in always competing to be “the best”, even as that life implicitly condemns vulnerability. There is a lot of individual sturdiness and security to be found in not trying to stand out and simply fading into the background of a larger group, even as that paradigm emphasizes relative ego-less-ness and sacrifice to the greater good.

  11. Minimizing average fragility can be done with Robert Nozick’s Experience machine. Like all utilitarian principles if you think them through they seem, at least to me, not very attractive.

    The reason that utilitarian principles are not yet practical on an individual level is that they go against our individual desires. What helps us is good, what hinders us is bad.

    As we grow into a world that gets more centralized every day that may change in the future. Some kind of centrally controlled but individual tuned Experience Machines may become reality.

    Would that be the end of all problems?

    Who knows.

    1. I think one could almost say that we have our own “Experience Machines”, if you compare modern life in middle class Western communities to Paleolithic life. Each member generally has access to an array of electronics that contain their own collection of favored songs, pictures, videos, contacts, and so on, available at the push of a button. Relatively personalized healthcare is an expectation so that painful ailments of all sorts are treated. We select whatever food we like on a daily basis. Etc. Certainly we are not 100% in control of our experience and human life remains incredibly fragile, but overall I’d say there’s been a huge shift in that direction.

      On the downside, it appears that the hedonic treadmill quickly undoes a lot of the progress in such areas as fast as we make it. On the upside, I don’t think said treadmill erase all gains – it may be a two steps forward one step back or slow build of dividends process, but it does seem that there’s a slow trend towards more well-being. Steve Pinker wrote a book about this in Enlightenment Now, and I think one can see examples of it in daily life. I was reading today about the recently uncovered scandals at Catholic orphanages run by nuns in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. It was deeply disturbing, and highlights how even a few decades ago there was a fair bit of callousness to extremely cruel, authoritarian childrearing methods. It seems noteworthy how quickly the ‘hushed but apparently accepted’ practices of one generation become the real world horror story of the next.

      Perhaps the hedonic treadmill does mean that the thrill of a new iPhone wears off faster than we think, but it does seem that overall the terrible mind states that give rise to truly disturbing behavior – ignorance, rage, hopelessness, shame, despair – whatever was going on there to cause such cruelty – are becoming less common in developed societies.

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