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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

What I'm Reading: The Coddling of the American Mind

I recently finished The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. It was published in 2018 by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, and is the expansion on a piece the authors penned for The Atlantic three years prior.

The book chronicles the rise of safetyism on college campuses, which the authors define as "a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns." Essentially, there has been a trend towards censorship of any topic, book, or public figure that has the potential to be upsetting to some students. This has come in the form of trigger warnings, disinviting controversial figures to speaking events, emphasizing microaggressions, and many more.

The authors argue that while these efforts to protect students may be well-intentioned, they are flawed in the outcomes they have. The book cites a quote from historian Hanna Holbern Gray, who said, "Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think." There's also a reference to news commentator Van Jones' impassioned response to the idea of "safe spaces" while speaking at the University of Chicago, where he says:

"I don't want you to be safe ideologically. I don't want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That's different. I'm not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I'm not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that's the whole point of the gym. This is the gym."

The problem, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, is that safetyism is antithetical to the purpose of college, which should be to prepare students for the realities of what they'll face in the world.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book. Though heavy in anecdotes, the authors supply enough data to make a credible argument. They shine a light on a trend that has only seemed to pick up steam in the time since it was written. In fact, while I believe universities have played some role in enforcing safetyism, I couldn't help but think of the recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, and the impact platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have played in all of this.

We live in cyberworlds where there is no longer coherence in the information we are exposed to. Rather than getting one version of the truth, we are now getting the truth we want to see and hear. That only solidifies, rather than challenges, our biases. As Van Jones would say, that's taking the weights out of the gym.

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