The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failureby Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (Penguin Press, $37 hardcover, $14.99 Kindle, 352 pages)
The reference to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) is surely no accident. Bloom, who taught at the University of Toronto for most of the 1970s, was known as a critical translator and expositor of Plato’s Republicwhen Closing of the American Mind made him a popular critic of cultural relativism and of the inattention to the foundations of Western civilization he found in the university of the late 20thcentury. For Bloom, the openness to anything had led to a “closing” or loss of the critical aptitude among a whole generation of North American students. Taking a cue from Bloom, I return to Plato.
Plato’s Apology of Socratesportrays his mentor, Socrates, as mounting a defense against two categories of charges. Socrates was tried on charges of impiety (challenging the Athenian pantheon) and corrupting youth (leading them to question the status quo). The charges originated with key stakeholders in – and protectors of – the Athenian status quo: political leaders, commercial leaders cultural leaders, and opinion leaders.
Socrates engaged in “elenchus,” a mode of argument designed to question and cross-examine, to test whether or not a received view or commonly accepted understanding could stand up to scrutiny and refutation. By so doing, Socrates challenged the authority of the Athenian hierarchy to fatal effect.
In a similar way, William of Ockham challenged the hierarchical authorities of his time. Ockham argued that those best positioned to interpret authoritative texts and determine their meaning were best equipped to understand the grammar of the texts: the scholars. Ockham sought to impose limits on hierarchical authority grounded in critique and deliberation. He argued a right of judgment apart from hierarchical authority.
Ockham’s assertion of what we now understand as the right of private judgment laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation, the western Enlightenment, and the Revolutions of 1774-1783, 1789-1794, 1848, 1917 and, perhaps most pertinent to this review, 1968, the year of student protests across the Western world. Each sought to challenge a status quosupported by a hierarchy, with critique and argument of the type promoted by Socrates on grounds like Ockham’s. In most of these, young adults took key roles as promoters of critique, frequently to the point of putting their physical safety at risk.
Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff are concerned that today’s young adults are not so much critics prepared to challenge the status quowith verve and nerve, as seekers of “safe spaces” to avoid “trigger warnings.” Not revolutionaries, but personal anti-revolutionaries. On today’s university campus, no critique or argument that challenges one’s sense of self, identity and worldview is too “micro” to be adjudged an “aggression” that causes offence and flight to “safe space.” If one had any doubts about this, we need not point to Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns or Lindsay Shepherd’s showing video clips of Jordan Peterson at Wilfrid Laurier University, but only to Valerie Flokstra’s daring to cite the correlation between increased rates of premature birth and abortion in a class discussion at the University of the Fraser Valley. Here, a student was pulled aside for potentially causing her classmates to feel uncomfortable or threatened, though none spoke out nor could be identified as such.
Let’s be clear: Flokstra’s evidence was not challenged so much as her putting forward the evidence. That is, Flokstra’s offence was treating a university classroom as a fit venue in which to engage in critique, and for potentiallymaking her classmates (or instructor?) feel uncomfortable as a result of that act.
In this book, Lukianoff and Haidt expand on this analysis of the state of early 21st-century students and North American university campuses, first put forward in a piece with the same name published in the September 2015 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. They propose a remedy in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The gist of CBT is that one must avoid misconstruing the non-threatening as threatening and change one’s behavior accordingly in order to grow and develop into a mature adult capable of engaging productively and fruitfully with the contemporary world. They even go so far as to include a primer on how to apply CBT in an appendix. Lukianoff and Haidt propose that parents should monitor their child-rearing practices so that their children are equipped for a road with curves and potholes (and peanuts!), lest they be launched into the world believing the road is smooth and easily navigated. Young people are better prepared for critique and adversity upon leaving their parents’ home if they have been exposed to it within the safe confines of a family under judicious parental oversight. Much as Bloom offered a “fix” for the university of 1987, Haidt and Lukianoff also offer a prescription along the CBT lines for university campuses that they correctly describe as “multi-versities” (cf. Alasdair MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, Universities, 2011).
As with Jordan Peterson and his 12 Rules for Lifepublished earlier this year, Lukianoff and Haidt’s analysis is notionally grounded in evolutionary biology and psychology. There are similarities to the Western Christian tradition of natural law. But as with the classical, Greco-Roman tradition of Eternal Natural Law, there is a critical difference.
Jesus and his first-century followers engaged in critique of the hierarchies of ancient Palestine and the Roman Empire. But they did so grounding their critique in the authority of a Creator-Sustainer-Redeemer. The Christian tradition is at its best when it appeals to this authority, as it engages in critique, reform, education, generational change, cultural development, and institution-building. Doing so entails a certain consanguineous confidence and humility that holds human hubris at bay or stirs the apathetic to action. Even before the Constantinian turn and its status as religio illicita(illegal religion) was over-turned, the first 300 years of Christian faith had revolutionized the treatment of women, slaves, the elderly and infirm, and rates of infant mortality as well as ancient Roman law itself on these and other matters.
A key concept that Christ emphasized is denoted by the New Testament’s ancient KOINE term, “metanoia.” This term and its cognates are variously translated as “repentance” or “conversion” or “penitence.” It suggests a change in behavior, direction and way of living that begins with a change of mind and how one interprets reality. It is not merely an intellectual assent. Nor is it merely “going along to get along.” It entails an intellectual shift, a directional shift or shift of purpose, a behavioural shift and shift in modus vivendi– how we should live. And, it is grounded in the authority not of parents or family, in teachers, in culture, nor the state, but in the authority of a Creator-Sustainer-Redeemer whose agenda is our welfare and living as intended, with all the richness and variety that makes possible.
Any parent, educator or policymaker would do well to take note of Lukianoff and Haidt’s accounting of university campuses and contemporary culture. It serves as an extraordinarily useful update of Allan Bloom’s analysis. As a bonus, they offer practical, rubber-meets-the-road steps to correcting the current situation. As with Peterson’s, Lukianoff and Haidt’s diagnosis and prescription are sound … as far as they go.
Russell E. Kuykendall is a consultant on politics and public affairs, based in Ottawa and Alberta, who served as campaign manager for the Tanya Granic Allen leadership campaign (2018) and deputy-campaign manager for the Brad Trost leadership campaign (2016-2017). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.