The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

I heard about this book after reading this article, then listening to this podcast, then finding the book on sale at my local bookstore. I can honestly say this was one of the best and most informative books I have read in the past couple of years, and, being an Adjunct Professor at various colleges in the Boston-area, it is one of the most prescient and useful books that I could have picked out of the “discounted” pile, even though it was only written about three years ago. Haidt and Lukianoff have many important bones to pick here about the lack of free speech on college campuses; our political tribalism and “us versus them mentality”; an overprotective generation of parents that is, quite literally, “coddling” our children; the creation of “safe” spaces on college campuses and administrators’ acquiescence to students who demand them; and the iGen/Generation Xers, who are plagued with mental health issues from social media and other outside factors — many not of their doing and far beyond the scope of their control. Lukianoff and Haidt present a very, very compelling argument here that we are raising a generation of kids and teens that are wholly unprepared to deal with the “real world” because they have not been exposed to, made aware of, and properly taught how to navigate the stressors that accompany everyday life, precisely because we — the adults in the room — aren’t willing to expose them to difficult situations and circumstances that are simply part of growing up. As an Adjunct Professor, I am not protected by any sort of tenure contract with any of my jobs, so many of the stories in this book of Adjunct’s getting fired because of something they wrote, said, or allowed others to say on a college campus was particularly startling to read. But I am grateful for having read it, because I am now armed with a whole host of data supporting what I already believed to be the case: it is not my job to make my students comfortable, but it is my job to make them think. I hope that in the future I am able to live up to those words, and many thanks to Lukianoff and Haidt for their important work. The real world beckons, and sometimes, it can be a tough place. We need to do a better job preparing our kids for it.

  • book about wisdom and its opposite
  • untruth of fragility: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
  • untruth of emotional reasoning: always trust your feelings
  • untruth of us vs. them: good vs. evil people
  • to qualify as a Great Untruth, ideas must contradict ancient wisdom, modern psychological research on well being, and they harm the individuals and communities that embrace it
  • Great Untruths have roots in earlier education and childhood experiences
  • in the 60’s, college campuses did not say that members of the school community would be harmed by a speaker’s visit or exposure to ideas
  • new today is the premise that students are fragile
  • engage in thought patterns that make problems seem more threatening, which makes them harder to solve
  • reactions to speech on college campuses exhibited the same distortions that the author learned to rebut in CBT therapy
  • college is quite possibly the best environment on earth to come face to face with people and ideas that are potentially offensive or even downright hostile
  • many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases the likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt
  • “call out” or shame others for small things that they deem to be insensitive
  • vindictive protectiveness
  • adults are doing far more these days to protect children
  • coddle — to treat with extreme or excessive care or kindness
  • problems of progress — bad consequences produced by otherwise good social changes
  • what people choose to do in their heads will determine how those real problems affect them
  • seeking out challenges, freeing yourself from cognitive distortions, taking a generous view of other people, looking for nuance
  • peanut allergies were surging precisely because parents and teachers had started protecting children from exposure to peanuts in the 90's
  • immune system is adaptive, able to adapt in and evolve with a changing environment
  • requires exposure to a range of foods
  • opportunity to learn how to fend off similar threats in the future
  • why allergy rates generally go up as countries get wealthier and cleaner
  • human beings need physical and mental challenges and stressors or we deteriorate
  • Taleb says that some things are antifragile: they become rigid, weak, and inefficient when nothing challenges them or pushes them to respond vigorously
  • “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child”
  • 2000’s, trauma became much more widely used by clients and patients, including college students
  • most people report becoming stronger, or better in some way, after suffering through a traumatic experience
  • vital that people who have survived violence become habituated to ordinary cues and reminders woven into the fabric of daily life
  • CBT therapists treat patients by exposing them to the things they find upsetting, activating fear, helping them habituate (grow accustomed) to the stimuli
  • safetyism = culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns
  • feedback loop, cure turns out to be a primary cause of the disease
  • born after 1995, iGen
  • obsessed with safety, emotional safety
  • CBT developed by Aaron Beck
  • schemas refer to the patterns of thoughts and behaviors, built up over time, that people use to process information quickly and effortlessly as they interact with the world
  • Beck discovered that it was possible to break the disempowering feedback cycle between negative beliefs and negative emotions
  • evidence of CBT working is overwhelming
  • therapy with the strongest evidence that it is both safe and effective
  • critical thinking: commitment to connect one’s claims to reliable evidence in a proper way, which is the basis of scholarship and is also the essence of CBT
  • problem with microaggressions is that it is not a good idea to start by assuming the worst about people and reading their actions as uncharitably as possible
  • unjust to treat people as if they are bigots when they harbor no ill will
  • citizens are more likely to withhold their true opinions if they fear being labeled as bigoted or insensitive
  • a faux pas does not make someone an evil person or an aggressor
  • if you teach students intention doesnt matter, and you also encourage students to find more things offensive, and you also tell them that whoever says or does the things they find offensive are “aggressors” who have committed acts of bigotry against them, then you are probably fostering feelings of victimization, anger, and hopelessness in your students
  • having an internal locus of control leads to greater health, happiness, effort expended, success in school, success at work
  • “education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think”
  • principle of clarity, which says that one should interpret other people’s statements in their best, most reasonable form, not in the worst or most offensive way possible
  • minimal group paradigm, people tended to distribute whatever was offered in favor of their in group members
  • human mind is prepared for tribalism
  • evolutionary endowment for banding together to prepare for intergroup conflict
  • identity politics = political mobilization organized around group characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality, as opposed to party, ideology, or pecuniary interest
  • politics is all about groups forming coalitions to achieve their goals
  • common humanity identity politics
  • King’s genius was using unifying languages of religion and patriotism, metaphor of family
  • movement would not destroy America; would repair and reunite it
  • to win hearts and minds, you must appeal to the elephant (intuitive and emotional processes) as well as the rider (reasoning)
  • humanized them and then relentlessly appealed to their humanity
  • identifying a common enemy is an effective way to enlarge and motivate your tribe
  • Marcuse, “New Left”, focused on civil rights, women’s rights, other movements promoting equality and justice; movement away a bit from workers vs. capital
  • “father” of the new left
  • intersectionality = analytic tool examines how power relations are intertwined and mutually constructing
  • power matters, members of groups sometimes act cruelly or unjustly to preserve their power, and people who are members of multiple identity groups can face various forms of disadvantage in ways that are often invisible to others
  • as a result of our long evolution for tribal competition, the human mind readily does dichotomous, us versus them thinking
  • authors favor teaching students to recognize a variety of kinds of bigotry and bias as an essential step toward reducing them
  • intersectionality can be taught skillfully
  • call out culture = students gain prestige for identifying small offenses committed by members of their community, and then publicly calling out the offenders
  • one reason social media has been so transformative — always an eager audience to watch people being shamed
  • students at many colleges today are walking on eggshells
  • virtue signaling refers to the things that people say and do to advertise that they are virtuous
  • helps them to stay within the good graces of their team
  • liberals after the 60’s threw themselves into the movement politics of identity; Roosevelt liberalism was an image of two hands shaking; identity liberalism wanted to produce a rainbow
  • now that some students, professors, and activists are labeling their opponents words as violence, they give themselves permission to engage in ideologically motivated physical violence
  • fortune telling = students predict what people would say
  • rhetorical flourish that became common in 2017: assertion that a speaker would “deny” people from certain identity groups the “right to exists”
  • catastrophizing: horrors of a speakers words far beyond what the speaker might actually say
  • labeling: list of serious accusations made without supporting evidence
  • ACLU defends rights, not ideologies
  • university life, along with civic life, dies without the free exchange of ideas; we teach people not what to think, but how to think — Valdivia
  • logical error to accept the claim that harm, even physical, is the same as violence
  • if words can cause stress and stress can cause harm, then words can cause harm, but that does not establish that words are violence
  • choose not to be harmed, and you won’t feel harmed. don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been — Aurelius
  • words don’t cause stress directly, they can only provoke stress and suffering in a person who has interpreted those words as provoking a threat
  • historical and sociological analyses of witch trials have generally explained these outbreaks as responses to a group experiencing either a sense of threat from outside, or division and loss of cohesion within
  • Durkheim, sociologist, level of the “sacred”, we are part of a collective
  • three features common to most political witch hunts: they arise quickly, they involve charges of crimes against the collective, and the offenses that lead to charges are often trivial or fabricated
  • a community becomes intensely mobilized to rid itself of internal enemies
  • fear of defending the accused
  • why did college students direct so much of their passion and effort toward changing their universities and to finding enemies within their own communities?
  • why were the protests strongest and most common on the east coast and west coast?
  • anything that can be construed as an attack on a group can serve as an opportunity for collective punishment and the enhancement of group solidarity
  • Durkheimian framework: surprising, out of nowhere, eruption of mass groupthink, trivial things are taken as grave attacks on a vulnerable community
  • anthropologists generally agree that cultures and subcultures instill different goals, skills, and virtues to their members, and it can’t possibly be true that all cultures prepare children equally well for success in all other cultures
  • one of the most brilliant features of universities is that, when they are working properly, they are communities of scholars who cancel out one another’s confirmation biases — institutionalized disconfirmation; process breaks down without diversity of ideas
  • professors lean left, openness to experience; social conservatives tend to be lower on openness and higher on conscientiousness — prefer things to be orderly and predictable
  • in a free society, never be the case that every occupation is evenly balanced, politically
  • baby boom professors were more diverse by race and gender but less diverse in their politics
  • college students have little or no exposure to professors from half of the political spectrum
  • viewpoint diversity is necessary for the development of critical thinking
  • some academic communities may undergo a phase change
  • begin to see the left and right locked into a game of mutual provocation and reciprocal outrage
  • 1990’s, parties began to think lesser of one another, plunging most between 2008–2012 (Tea party, occupy wall street)
  • 1940–1980, politics was pretty centrist and bipartisan
  • negative partisanship: motivated by hatred of the other party’s candidate
  • faculty and students at universities have shifted to the left since the 90's
  • “outrage industry” of talk radio, cable, on the right
  • polarization spiral, for every action there is a disproportionate reaction
  • whether the reaction comes from the off campus right or the on campus left, the response from university leadership is usually weak and often doesn’t support the professor
  • changes in adolescent mental health and in the nature of American childhood may have rendered many current students more easily burned by the “boiling” that they find once they arrive on campus
  • 2017, students seeking help were part of a much larger wave of adolescent anxiety and depression unlike anything seen in modern times
  • college students are antifragile, not fragile
  • some well intended protections may backfire
  • iGen = internet generation, internet in their pockets, Gen Z
  • Facebook changed membership requirements in 2006
  • 2007–2012, social media platforms proliferated
  • kids now grow up more slowly = driving, drinking, drugs, they wait longer to do these things
  • more time alone, interacting on screens
  • less supervised time and fewer offline life experiences than had any previous generation
  • one out of every five girls major depressive episode in the previous year
  • applying labels to people can create a looping effect: can change the behavior of the person being labeled and become a self fulfilling prophecy
  • teen suicide rate increasing in tandem with the increase in depression
  • compared to the early 2000’s, nearly 2X as many teenage girls now end their own lives
  • two activities correlated with depression and suicide: device use, watching TV
  • inverse relationship with depression — sports, exercise, religious services, books, in person interactions, homework
  • devices take us away from people
  • more harmful for girls — gap between appearance and reality, inclusion and exclusion, fear of being left out, images of beauty is artificially enhanced
  • social media = greatest enabler of relational aggression since the invention of language
  • anxiety now by far leading problem for which college students seek treatment
  • universities were not causing a mental health crisis, responding to one
  • safetyism does not help students who suffer from anxiety and depression
  • depression and anxiety go together
  • create strong negative emotions, which feed emotional reasoning
  • learned helplessness: something is impossible and therefore stops trying, even in new situations where effort would be rewarded
  • hostile attribution bias: more likely to see hostility in benign or even benevolent people, communications, and situations
  • smartphones and social media are complicated, involving mixtures of benefits and harms depending on a lot of factors
  • modern parenting is preventing kids from growing strong and independent
  • 1990’s, crimes plummeted in the U.S., fear of crime did not diminish
  • when we attempt to produce perfectly safe systems, we almost inevitably create new and unforeseen problems
  • when we protect kids from an experience, they miss out on opportunities to learn skills, independence, risk assessment
  • too much close supervision and protection can morph into safetyism
  • mothers today are spending more total time taking care of their children
  • with respect to parenting practices, social class matters far more than race
  • 80’s into 90’s, “intensive parenting”
  • change happened primarily among middle class parents
  • give children every ounce of possible advantage in the increasingly competitive marketplace to get into a good college
  • shift did not happen among working class parents
  • severe adversity hits kids early, especially in the absence of secure and loving attachment relationships with adults, does not make them stronger; makes them weaker
  • chronic, severe adversity creates toxic stress
  • overparenting is probably a much greater cause of fragility on such campuses than is underparenting
  • discounting positives, negative filtering, dichotomous thinking
  • play is essential for wiring a mammal’s brain to create a functioning adult
  • practice behaviors that will give the brain the right kind of feedback to optimize itself for success in the environment that happens to surround it
  • children who are deprived of play are less likely to develop into physically and socially competent teens and adults
  • free play = activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself
  • iGen = drop in free play accelerated
  • instead of enjoying a healthy amount of risk, this generation is more likely than earlier ones to avoid it
  • 1981–1997, time in school went up 18%, homework went up 145%
  • college admissions a big part of it
  • kindergarten is much more sedentary and structured
  • No Child Left Behind — preschool standards, general emphasis on testing, introduction of Common Core
  • social time and play have been sacrificed in preschool to keep up with the academic expectations for kindergarten readiness
  • Duckworth: “Perseverance without passion is mere drudgery. Devote themselves to pursuits that are intrinsically fulfilling.”
  • greatest importance in free play is that it is always voluntary
  • a society that weakens children’s ability to learn these skills denies them of what they need to smooth social interaction
  • 20M students are enrolled in American higher ed, 40% of all 18–24 year olds
  • number of administrators has climbed up, responsibilities has crept outward
  • increase in cost of a degree
  • market driven decision by universities, treat students as consumers
  • overreaction cases exactly as the name suggests: they are disproportionate responses to perceived offenses
  • overregulation — admins tightly regulate students in order to keep them “safe”
  • vague and overbroad speech codes
  • free speech zones
  • see something, say something
  • psychological experiments have consistently shown that to be human is to have biases
  • as more and more professors shy away from potentially provocative materials and discussion topics, students miss out on opportunities to develop intellectual antifragility
  • may come to find even more material offensive and require more protection
  • Title IX, 2013 dept. of education and justice issued a sweeping new definition of harassment: any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, including verbal, nonverbal, physical conduct
  • expanded notions of harassment have come to threaten free speech and academic freedom
  • victimhood culture, sensitivity to slight, tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties, cultivate an image of victims who deserve assistance
  • moral dependence = rely on external authorities to resolve their problems, willingness or ability to use other forms of conflict management may atrophy
  • 14–24 years old, peak at 18, political events likely to “stick” during that period than outside that age range
  • 2012–2018 seem like the closest we’ve come to the intensity of the stretch from 1968–1972
  • intuitive justice is the combination of distributive justice (the perception that people are getting what is deserved) and procedural justice (the perception that the process by which things are distributed and rules are enforced is fair and trustworthy)
  • humans naturally favor fair distributions, not equal sums
  • proportionality is the heart of equity theory
  • when the ratio of outcomes to inputs is equal for all participants, people perceive that to be equitable, or fair
  • most relationships, people keep close track of how much reward each person is reaping in proportion to how much they are contributing
  • procedural justice: people are much more willing to accept a decision or action, even one that goes against themselves, when they perceive that the process that led to the decision was fair
  • how is the decision being made?
  • how is the person being treated?
  • social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities
  • proportional procedural social justice: effort to find and fix cases where distributive or procedural justice is denied to people because they were born into poverty or belong to a socially disadvantaged category
  • girls and women are often as interested as boys and men in getting physical exercise, but not in playing team sports
  • Title IX had its original goal of providing equal access to educational opportunities for women and men, program morphed into one that pushes universities to obtain equal outcomes regardless of inputs
  • quotas generally produce a strong backlash: mandate a violation of procedural justice (people treated differently based on sex, race, or other factor) and distributive justice (rewards are not proportional to inputs) to achieve a specific end state of equal outcomes
  • if activists embrace the equal outcomes norm of social justice — if they interpret all deviations from population norms as evidence of systemic bias — then they will get drawn into endless and counterproductive campaigns, even against people who share their goals
  • kids need some unstructured, unsupervised time in order to learn how to judge for themselves and practice dealing with things like frustration, boredom, and interpersonal conflict
  • assume that your kids are more capable this mont than they were last month
  • let your kids take small risks
  • free range kids movement
  • encourage your children to walk or ride bicycles to and from school
  • help your kids find a community of kids in the neighborhood
  • summer camp in the woods!
  • encourage your children to engage in a lot of productive disagreement
  • Grant: frame it as a debate, argue as if you’re right, but listen if you are wrong, make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective, acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them
  • basics of CBT
  • mindfulness: paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgementally
  • give people the benefit of the doubt
  • principle of charity: effort to interpret other people’s statements in their best or most reasonable form
  • intellectual humility — recognition that our reasoning is so flawed, so prone to bias, that we can rarely be certain if we are right
  • common humanity identity politics
  • homework in the early grades should be minimal
  • more recess, less supervision
  • discourage the use of the word “safe” or “safety” for anything other than physical safety
  • no devices policy
  • protect or expand middle school recess
  • cultivate the intellectual virtues — curiosity, open mindedness, intellectual humility
  • teach debate, offer debate club
  • helps students distinguish between a critique of ideas and a personal attack
  • assign readings and coursework that promote reasoned discussion
  • difference between evidence and opinion
  • clear limits on device time
  • pay as much attention to what children are doing as you do to how much time they spend doing it
  • protect sleep for the child
  • carpe datum — seize the data
  • Chicago Statement — U Chicago, 2015
  • establish a practice of not responding to public outrage
  • heckler’s veto: nobody has the right to prevent a fellow member of the community from attending or hearing a lecture
  • admit more students who are older and can show evidence of their ability to live independently
  • admit more students who have attended schools that teach the intellectual virtues
  • include viewpoint diversity in diversity policies
  • explicitly reject the Untruth of Fragility: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
  • one’s voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views
  • reject us vs. them
  • reject always trust your feelings
  • foster school spirit
  • protect physical safety
  • host civil, cross partisan events for students
  • Pinker: in the long run most things are getting better, quickly and globally
  • Macaulay: “On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
  • common enemy identity politics of the far right and far left feed off of one another
  • psychological research shows that tribalism can be countered and overcome by teamwork, by projects that join individuals in a common task on equal footing
  • universities committing to truth as a process

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I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.

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Adam Marks

Adam Marks

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.

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