New Book Takes On The Coddling Of American Minds
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
College campuses face a question - how to balance free speech against demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings. You may recall that last year, students at the University of California at Berkeley demanded the cancellation of speeches by conservative commentators Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Shut it down. Shut it down.
INSKEEP: In Vermont, students at Middlebury College shouted down controversial speaker Charles Murray.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho, Charles Murray has got to go.
INSKEEP: A new book argues that such efforts on campus are harming an entire generation's intellectual development because they're shutting out ideas. The book is called "The Coddling Of The American Mind." It's written by free speech activist Greg Lukianoff and New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt. Both have spent a lot of time in classrooms. They're used to students being provocative, and that was the starting point for Rachel Martin's conversation with Jonathan Haidt.
JONATHAN HAIDT: But then suddenly around 2014, students began objecting to things that we thought were just strange and sometimes objecting in ways like not coming to talk to us but reporting us to authorities. So, you know, I showed a 19th-century painting of Ulysses tied to a mast, and it showed the sirens, and the sirens are topless as sirens tend to be, and someone complained that this was sexist for me to show this. Nationally, people are complaining about Halloween costumes or not even the costumes but the possibility, a memo, about Halloween costumes. Just - there seemed to be a lot more conflict over things that seemed not malintentioned, often even helpful. And so a lot of us began to feel we don't understand our students. That some of them - and again, this is not most - but a subgroup were becoming kind of thin-skinned and sometimes kind of vindictive in ways that just were hard to understand.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Although, we should point out the other view on this - right? - is that these students are speaking out for the first time, whereas before maybe they did not feel empowered to do so if someone were to say something that they would perceive as racist or misogynist or that that did, quote, unquote, "trigger" a past trauma.
HAIDT: Well, students have been very outspoken about these issues for as long as I've been in the academy - in fact, when I was a student in the '80s. So it's not that students are suddenly empowered to speak out. It's that many students seem to be interpreting things not through the lens of is this right or wrong, or even is this offensive or acceptable, but is this dangerous or safe? And this, we think, is what is so damaging.
MARTIN: You identify three great untruths. You want to tick through those? I know we could talk for a long time about each of them, but can you explain what they are?
HAIDT: Sure. So my first book was about these psychological ideas that the ancients had - East and West. And what Greg and I found is that on college campuses nowadays, you can find areas in the curriculum or various departments where students are being taught exactly the opposite. So the first great untruth that we talk about is what doesn't kill you makes you weaker. So obviously, everybody knows the, you know, the great truth is what doesn't kill you makes you stronger because people are anti-fragile. We actually need challenges. We need to sometimes even be afraid in order to overcome our fears. And if we try to protect kids from that, we actually are damaging them. The second great untruth is always trust your feelings. Students are, again, increasingly told that their feelings are a legitimate guide to reality...
MARTIN: You don't think students should trust their feelings?
HAIDT: Well, the whole point of cognitive behavioral therapy is that we engage in emotional reasoning. This is what people do, and this is what anxious and depressed people do a lot more, is if I feel unsafe that means I am unsafe. If I'm not fully comfortable around someone, that means they don't like me, and that is often wrong. But when people's feelings become acceptable as an argument in class, we are doing the opposite of teaching them critical thinking skills.
MARTIN: And lastly, life is a battle between good people and evil people?
HAIDT: Oh, yes. This is the most important one. So my second book was all about how we are by nature tribal creatures. We are so good at dividing ourselves into us and them and then hating them and organizing to fight them. So that's wonderful if you're doing a gang fight or a war, but a college is a special place. What we're trying to do is turn down the tribalism, turn down the combat mode. And only then can we engage in curiosity mode or truth-seeking mode. So to the extent that we play up identity, to the extent that as soon as students arrive on campus, they're often hit by a lot of programming that emphasizes identity issues, that encourages them to see each other in terms of their identities. This is so contrary to the most basic principles of social psychology, which are that we should be emphasizing our common identity, our common humanity, and then we'll be much better able to deal with issues of injustice and exclusion.
MARTIN: Although, can you make the argument that, in colleges especially, this is the place where you are supposed to learn how to grapple with difficult ideas in the real world? And so why not set up buffers to kind of curate those debates, trigger warnings or allowing certain students to opt out of certain assignments?
HAIDT: Well, on the surface, that sounds very sensible, reasonable and nice. But Americans have been grossly overprotecting their kids since the 1990s. So our kids have already had - they've already gotten the kid-glove treatment. College is their first chance to really get out of that. There already are enormous buffers and safeguards. We have wonderful norms of civility. But actually, here I'd love to turn to one of my favorite quotes in the book. This is from Van Jones. So, you know, Obama's green energy czar. He's been just speaking wonderfully about the political situation in this country and the need to deal with it more productively. So when he was at the University of Chicago, he was asked by David Axelrod about all this stuff, about trigger warnings or, you know, what should universities do to protect students from politically offensive speakers. And he says - this is amazing - 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. So Van Jones really gets anti-fragility. He really gets that that great untruth - what doesn't kill you makes you weaker - is wrong. It's terrible advice for how to deal with students.
MARTIN: The book is called "The Coddling Of The American Mind," written by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. Thank you so much for your time, Jonathan.
HAIDT: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for talking with me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "WILDER YEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.