Review of ‘Coddling of the American Mind’

October 3, 2018 - by Holden Thorp

The new book “Coddling of the American Mind” is the bestselling book on higher education in a long time, maybe ever.  The authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff built on the success of their Atlantic article of the same name, which is a required reading in my class on Higher Education Administration (it is paired with “The Neoliberal Arts” by Deresiewicz to give the other side.)

Some excellent writing has been done on the book, especially this piece in Inside Higher Ed.  

The biggest surprise for folks is probably that although the authors are critical of safe spaces and trigger warnings (they call it “safetyism”), the book is not a right-wing screed about the perils of postmodernism.  In fact, the authors wanted to call the book “Disempowered,” but the publisher (probably correctly) felt they would sell more books if they leveraged the success of the Atlantic article.

While growth in university bureaucracy and catering to what they see as fragile student needs are criticized, most of the problems are blamed on outside forces (political polarization, screens, overparenting, rise of anxiety and depression).

So conservatives who buy the book hoping for a take-down of higher education are probably being disappointed.  Liberals who are curious about the arguments are likely to be pleasantly surprised.  Nevertheless, as Warner’s piece in Inside Higher Ed highlights, the authors missed the chance to go deeper into the systemic reasons for the problems.  As the Kavanaugh matter lays bare the grim realities of the behavior of prep school/Ivy elites, it is easy to see how folks who feel left out could be asking for something more.  Yes, it would be great if everyone could withstand microaggressions and exclusion to become more resilient, but is it the students who are fragile or is the real fragility the opportunity that they have been given to run in the big leagues?

Most of the “safetyism” examples obtain at elite schools (Evergreen State is an exception), which supports Warner’s argument.  In an environment where the nerds and the aided students and the people of color feel like they have been given a golden ticket to study alongside the cool kids, it is logical that they could be anxious. 

How to soothe that anxiety and build resilience is the puzzle that has not yet been solved.  It’s going to require a lot of listening by all sides.  Surprisingly, “Coddling of the American Mind,” title notwithstanding, could possibly help.



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