It’s a familiar refrain. Old folks just don’t understand what’s going on with college students, and that makes them feel out of touch, unsympathetic to the young. In the late 1960s, Ronald Reagan built his political career in California on his hostility to the spoiled, un-American dissidents protesting in Berkeley. In the 1980s, Allan Bloom transformed himself from hedonistic, mandarin professor to best-selling conservative scold by excoriating students for their addiction to rock music and deafness to the higher pleasures of Straussian contemplation. In that same decade, former leftist Sidney Hook whined that “there is less freedom of speech on American campuses today . . . than at any other recent period in peacetime in American history.” By the 1990s, it was common knowledge that you could attract a crowd of supporters by attacking political correctness, and in recent years we have seen no end of folks with access to a keyboard or a microphone complaining about PC college students, those “excellent sheep,” in William Deresiewicz’s memorable phrase. President Trump is only the most vulgar and powerful of those willing to say that “political correctness is killing our country.”
This is the context for Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s expansion into book form of their popular 2015 Atlantic magazine essay, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The marketable title, assigned to them by a savvy editor at the magazine, evokes Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind.” Both books were meant to bring “wisdom and its opposite” to light through a critical appraisal of what has gone wrong in higher education. Wisdom for Bloom was contained in the questions considered by the Great Books of the Western tradition, books that he feared were no longer studied with seriousness in the age of triumphant multiculturalism and philistine social science. In a move that would have made Bloom ill, Lukianoff and Haidt find “the modern embodiment of . . . ancient wisdom” in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and its techniques for confronting cognitive distortions.
Lukianoff and Haidt do an excellent job of reminding readers of how the assumption of fragility can be disempowering. But are students today disempowered because they’ve been convinced they are fragile, or do they feel vulnerable because they are facing problems like climate change and massive, nasty inequality? Is the parenting style among middle-class families really paranoid, or are parents recognizing that the middle class is being eroded by economic policies that steer more and more wealth to fewer and fewer people? Are the millions of young people suffering from opioid addiction connected to helicopter parents, too? Are historically marginalized groups feeling absurdly risk averse, or are they appropriately wary of an American population that can be energized by powerful, overtly racist demagogues willing to engage in abusive scapegoating?
Lukianoff and Haidt don’t answer these questions but instead rehearse the by-now familiar list of campus demonstrations allowed to run amok. The riots in Berkeley are here, as is the ugly nonsense allowed to overrun portions of Middlebury, Claremont McKenna and Evergreen colleges. These are well-worn examples of truly bad things happening, but it is a mistake to paint them as typical of higher education or as evidence that America is much more polarized than ever before. There are certainly university employees who have been treated unfairly by protesters, but beginning their unfortunately titled chapter “Witch Hunts” with the Chinese Cultural Revolution is offensive or comical, depending on the reader’s mood. Millions of people were murdered in the Cultural Revolution. Lukianoff and Haidt describe employees who suffered career disruption, sometimes softened with severance payments.
It would be a mistake, though, to dismiss Lukianoff and Haidt’s “Great Untruths” and “explanatory threads” as only so much hype dressed in CBT social scientism. The authors are right to push back hard against the cultivation of fragility and victimhood, and to defend free speech as essential to the mission of higher education. Professors and students shouldn’t be afraid to express themselves, make mistakes, find better ways of thinking and living through passionate disputation. Lukianoff and Haidt’s insights on the dangers of creating habits of “moral dependency” are timely and important, and the concluding self-help section of the book is reasonable: Keep ’em safe, but not too safe. Things may not be what they used to be, but that common-sense advice still rings true enough.