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

“It is the ultimate mental gymnasium, full of advanced equipment, skilled trainers, and therapists standing by, just in case.”

A few years ago I read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and I loved every second of that book. So when I heard Haidt was involved in writing a book about college students and how we prepare them for the world, I knew I had to read this book.

Let me start off by saying I loved the book. I could not put it down. It was engaging from start to finish. Each chapter of the book stretched my mind until it felt like mush.

There were moments when I thought the authors were geniuses and other moments where I thought the authors were completely nuts. And looking back on it, I realize this is the problem. We want to put everything into categories. Everything has to be either right or wrong. Nothing is allowed to be the middle. You must be for something or against something, there is no room for anything else.

However, we must accept tension. Living within tension is beautiful. It is not easy but it can release our limitations. If we instantly put things into categories before we think through them, then we have already lost. The authors point this out: “Teaching people to see aggression in ambiguous interactions, take more offense, feel more negative emotions, and avoid questioning their interpretations strike us as unwise.”I can love this book even though I think the arguments in the book are at times weak and other times amazing.

I have worked with college students for many years now. I know there are generational differences, but they are all human and college student problems are all the same they just manifest themselves in different ways. This is the challenge we see today. College students can be very resilient when they want to be, the trick is challenging them to be resilient. Colleges are imperfect places and there are a no quick fixes to higher education woes. For example, I worked on a college campus that did not provide on campus medical staff and I was shamed by a parent for it. I said it wouldn’t be a problem, but we would need to raise tuition a few thousand dollars per student just to cover the costs of staff, facilities, and insurance. Let’s just say, the parent did offer to donate any money. (And no, we did not have a climbing wall or lazy river on our campus either)

Again, I loved the book and I loved the message of resiliency but here a few items mentioned in the book that I am not so quick to blame:

Social Media: Are social media and smartphones powerful and dangerous tools that can do major harm? Absolutely. Will television and video games rot my brain? No, it didn’t though I was warned incessantly by my mother and other so-called research. That said, I think technology gets blamed way too quickly for society's problems. It is easy to blame because adults usually don’t understand it (for example, Congress had no idea how Facebook works and the government looked silly trying to blame them for modern problems).

Extreme Anecdotes: A professor gets fired for an unassuming email. Protests erupt on campus because of speaker. A mother gets shamed online for her parenting. These are all real issues, but they are all extreme cases. I have worked long enough to know that what we see covered in media is not the full story. Even in this book, the authors use a throwaway line such as (and I am paraphrasing) “Now we don’t know about other events that led up to…” That’s a pretty big throwaway. It may be a case of an overreacting student, but it could also be the straw that broke the camel’s back on a campus strife with innate racism and sexism. A lot of things change when you raise the temperature just one degree when water can begin to boil.

Risks to Democracy: Yes, if we cannot have civil discourse, democracy suffers, but I think it is a little much to say that “coddled” college students are setting us all up for failure. Young people rarely vote and that is probably because they do not understand a lot of things yet about themselves.

Near the end of the book, there is a line that I think sums up perfectly why college students are recently acting differently: “College students today are living in an extraordinary time...They are identifying injustices that have been well-documented and unsuccessfully addressed for too long.” Perhaps they are tired of the same old thing.

This is a great book and it deserves to be read thoughtfully. I loved the end where it said “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” I think this is very true. We can’t make the road safe, but we can wear seatbelts and get upset when the same darn pothole hasn’t been fixed.