The stories don’t surprise me anymore. College students—technically adults—finding new and more absurd ways to be offended and feel “unsafe” because of words spoken in their presence; it is so common that it’s not a punch line worth delivering now.
The latest headscratcher comes courtesy of the Asian American Alliance (AAA) at Columbia University. The student group recently invited comedian Nimesh Patel, a former Saturday Night Live writer, to their annual charity event, CultureSHOCK: Reclaim.
About 30 minutes into his set, AAA turned off his microphone and asked Patel to leave because they deemed his reportedly mild jokes offensive. For those of us who grew up listening to Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock and before them Richard Pryor and George Carlin, this seems a bit excessive.
“What are they teaching kids in college these days?” us older folks groan.
Not so fast, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt tell us. This is a new phenomenon on college campuses, and it looks like many kids are coming to college pre-programmed to act this way.
In their best-seller, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions And Bad Ideas Are Setting Up A Generation For Failure, Lukianoff and Haidt find plenty of blame to go around beginning with a culture of safetyism that teaches children to be fragile and ending with an Us Versus Them mentality that assumes those who disagree with us are evil.
Lukianoff and Haidt describe The Coddling of the American Mind as “a book about good intentions gone awry,” and back it up with a compelling argument for how we got here. Rising political polarization combined with cross-party animosity set the stage for a downward spiral into incivility throughout the culture and particularly on college campuses.
New paranoid parenting practices have developed alongside an increase in anxiety and depression among teenagers, especially girls, and a declining emphasis on free play deprives children of the opportunity to learn to be independent and work things out for themselves.
The bureaucracies of colleges are expanding and bowing to the demands of students for protection from ideas they disagree with or find offensive, and the attitudes on campus about what constitutes justice are changing in ways that are not always healthy for society or fair to individuals and groups.
All these elements have combined in varying degrees to spread what the authors call the “Great Untruths.”
There are three of them—“The Untruth of Fragility: What does not kill you makes you weaker, The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings, and The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.” iGen, the generation that began entering college in 2013, has learned these untruths either overtly or through cultural osmosis, and it is changing college campuses across the country for the worst.
“What is new today is the premise that students are fragile,” the authors tell us. “Even those who are not fragile themselves often believe others are in danger and need protection. There is no expectation that students will grow stronger from their encounters with speech or text they label ‘triggering.’”
The good news is Lukianoff and Haidt offer us solutions with concrete, actionable examples for reversing these trends.
Parents can embrace the Free-Range Kids movement, elementary and middle schools can provide more opportunities for unstructured, minimally supervised free play, and universities can endorse the Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression and push back against a culture of safetyism.
The Coddling of the American Mind is not a parenting book, but it is a valuable book for parents to read. The culture pushes us to be overprotective, in some cases against our own instincts, and this book outlines why it is so important for us to push back.
We also learn cognitive behavioral therapy strategies for identifying and counteracting common cognitive distortions in our children and ourselves. Teachers at all levels and anyone who works with children and youth would benefit from reading this as well.
All is not lost, but righting the ship will require all of us to rethink our definitions of safety and make a commitment as a culture to raise anti-fragile kids who are strengthened through the day to day stressors and challenges of life.
Lukianoff and Haidt have sounded the alarm, it’s up to all of us to heed their warnings.