Money Talks, and Also Takes the SAT
In light of the breaking news on college admissions this week, I wanted to circle back to one of the most important books for our time - especially when it comes to what's happening on American college campuses - The Coddling of the American Mind. While the bribery scandal may look like it has nothing to do with coddling, snowflakes, and helicopter parenting, there's a crucial question we need to keep in mind; how did we create an environment in which bribing college officials was worth the cost? I mean that literally and figuratively.
In so many ways, this parallels the ongoing NCAA scandal involving Adidas and highly recruited basketball players. The system is set up to incentivize players to go to college for one year and then go collect their paycheck in the NBA. While I know there are millions of opinions about paying college athletes, the one-year requirement, and every other feature of the AAU to NCAA to NBA path, there's a constant that runs beneath the entire discussion; college is seen as a necessary evil on the way to a paycheck. The same thing is true in the bribery scandal. Better than anything else I've read, The Coddling of the American Mind diagnoses the cultural trend that brought us to this point.
Here's a summary of the book and links to individual posts at the bottom:
People aren’t fragile, they’re antifragile.
The first great untruth that’s having its way in our culture is the belief that what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. On the surface that doesn’t seem to fit very well. Is that untruth really common? Take a moment to think about all the outrage and the inability to hear or engage with alternative viewpoints and you realize how right they are. This is a major problem.
The authors call this the culture of safetyism. From parents who don’t let their kids play unsupervised to college safe spaces, the impact of this trend is an overwhelming lack of internal fortitude. The effects extend beyond individuals. Terms have begun to migrate to reflect the tides of political correctness. Students decry the “harm” they will experience if a speaker they don’t like gives a talk on campus. Hearing different opinions constitutes “violence.” The culture of safetyism produces people who believe that they are so fragile that they do not believe they can endure being challenged, disagreed with, or treated in any way that can be construed as unfair.
But people aren’t like fine china. They’re like finely tanned leather. We need some scuffing to build up a patina, and the more we’re stretched the more flexible we become. Trees grow deep roots when they’re pushed and pulled by strong winds. Words are not violence, but they can be wrong. In a post-Christian, morally relativistic society, it’s much easier to declare something to be dangerous than to simply say it’s wrong.
As a remedy, Haidt and Lukianoff recommend a paradigm shift; “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” Don’t use the word safety when you’re not talking about physical harm. What doesn’t kill you really will make you stronger.
Healthy conflict is good.
Ideas really matter and the only way to truly learn about ideas is to think through opposing views. This really begins in the home and in the schools. It’s common knowledge that family dinners are important for kids’ development, and the authors provide some statistics that confirm this. One of the central reasons why this is so important is that children have to learn how to have a discussion. At the dinner table, they can talk about their day, discuss ideas, receive encouragement and correction. A subject that was eerily missing in the book was discipline. In the midst of all the recommendations to let kids roam free and ride their bikes around the neighborhood, there’s this sense that the authors are just assuming kids are relatively obedient. That may be a safe assumption among most kids.
It’s important to confront things you don’t agree with and learn to like people you vehemently disagree with. The data on mental illness in the U.S. was staggering. Not only are the levels of anxiety and depressing going up, especially among teeners, fastest among teenage girls, what was even more eye-opening was their assertion that people are learning to cope using strategies found in people with anxiety and depression. The epidemic of PTSD among college students who have experienced micro-aggressions is at least partly because of the coping mechanisms they’ve been taught to employ. Rising anxiety levels are due at least partly to learned anxiety inducing routines and mental responses. There’s a lot to be worried about on college campuses and around the country as speakers are shouted down, witch hunts spring up, and forced resignations for violating the ever-changing code of political correctness appear in the papers more regularly, but the most gut-wrenching effects of the untruths have to be the price being paid by our most vulnerable.
From a young age, kids need to be taught healthy boundaries for how to disagree and how to be disagreed with. The free exchange of ideas is too important to let evaporate. The first step is to agree on the fact that there is healthy conflict, and the second step is to become as comfortable as we can with it. Beginning in the grade schools and middle schools all the way to the college campus, we need to encourage debate, respect, and civility.
College campuses that promote free speech and free ideas are the ones that are going to thrive.
Before I read this book, I knew about the problems on college campuses but I had no idea the extent of the dysfunction. The authors make clear that a small percentage of colleges account for a large percentage of the headlines. What they describe certainly wasn’t my experience. When I was in school we just laughed at signs for the Vagina Monologues and other fringe events; I don’t know anyone who went. I never saw anyone protesting during my four years in school. That’s not because there weren’t controversial things going on. There were preachers standing on coolers a few days a year yelling at everyone through megaphones but nobody organized a protest. Most people listened for a few minutes and then went on with their lives.
When I was a freshman I even went to see Bill Clinton speak. He was campaigning for Hillary and came to OU. A few friends and I drove down and filed into the floor area in the fieldhouse. It was a great experience. I have to admit, when they started throwing t-shirts into the crowd and one of them found it’s way into my hand, I launched it back up on the stage, but I didn’t do it because I felt like anybody had committed a micro-aggression. How many more beefy tees does a college freshman need?
The University of Chicago has made some pretty amazing strides toward creating an environment of free speech and free thinking. Haidt and Lukianoff include the “Chicago Rules” for free expression on campus. The University of Chicago actually has an entire page devoted to this topic. Several dozen universities have adopted similar measures. The failure of many prestigious universities to respond well to being held hostage from student groups should cause every university president to think through these issues.
My sense is that the intellectual dark web; Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, et al., have the best chance to bring about lasting change in education and (especially) young men’s relationship to education. I would put The Coddling of the American Mind in the same category. Although the book will undoubtedly have an effect on parenting, the most critical area of impact might be the university campus. You know the feeling when you look at the way the culture is going and you feel like it’s a total lost cause? There are so many areas where this might be the case, but I really believe there will be a resurgence in the universities. Whether the Ivies repent and return to a classical model of the university, I don’t know. If the lawsuit against Harvard for their discriminatory admissions practices reveals anything, it’s that the possibility of change is afoot.
The major change, I believe, will come from schools like the University of Chicago, Hillsdale College, and research universities and liberal arts colleges in the Midwest and the center of the country that look at the coasts and see an opportunity. Over the next 20 years, there will be droves of bright promising students who don’t want to go somewhere the University President will cave to mob rule, and their parents certainly won’t pay for them to go there. Instead, colleges that are willing to keep a liberal education as their central goal will inherit a generation of America’s bright minds. That will be a win for the country.
The main piece missing in this book is a foundational set of ethical principles. The book comes close in places to espousing Christian beliefs, but ultimately the picture is incomplete. Now, I’m not saying that anything not explicitly Christian isn’t any good. That’s not the case at all. I’ve spent the better part of two months talking about how good this book is. But there’s a gaping hole that has to be dealt with. In the end, there is no bedrock in the Coddling of the American Mind, because I’m not sure the authors know what constitutes the American mind itself. The values of free thought and expression are the loftiest ideals they espouse, but even those two are incomplete.
The clearest departure point between Christians and Haidt and Lukianoff is the path forward. Their fundamental outlook is behavioral. Our fundamental outlook is transformational.
When it comes to worldview, Christians have something substantial to add. In Ephesians 6, Paul tells fathers to bring their children up in the knowledge and instruction of the Lord. Everyone knows, though, that good parenting isn’t a guarantee for great kids, or great adults. The only guarantee for Christians is the gift of the Holy Spirit that comes through trusting in Christ.
Haidt and Lukianoff advise through statistical probability, but there’s no ultimate assurance for the things they’re saying, no supreme foundation, and no bedrock to build a life on. The authors don’t talk about what you need to believe at all. They don’t grasp the fact that the six great untruths are more than just a set of curious abnormalities. They see the untruths as cycles that can be fixed by cognitive behavioral therapy. This may be true on an individual scale.
Our hope is primarily in transformation that leads to behavior change, not the other way around. While we can advocate for the things this book offers, we shouldn’t hope that this book offers an ultimate solution. Even so, this is a great book, and it’s been formative for my thinking and I hope it’s been formative for yours as well.
Starting next week, we’ll begin with a new series! Comment if you have suggestions for books or topics you’d like to see on the blog.
Here are the other posts in the series: