Review: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So this is a book that people fell in love with based upon the title, in large part because it reaffirmed their views about youth. In doing so, it's tapped into a self-replicating narrative that people tend to produce time and again since as far back as Hesiod about the poor quality of kids today. And while there were aspects of this book that I was hopeful and interested in hearing, I found their writing largely a superficial treatment at best but more realistically, harmful in the sense that they perpetuate a narrative that more paper tiger and yet, people will take it as gospel.

They seem to simultaneously want to tell the reader that students are being fed and turned into these mindless beings who see things in simple black and white, yet don't blink or give pause to the examples that they event mention that indicate the truth might be otherwise. For instance, after talking about how students seem wholly unwilling to engage in differences of opinion, they quote an article from a student newspaper from Harvard saying the exact opposite. Ultimately, the book charges youth for failing to see the world in more complex ways, but the authors fail to see student agency in any way but as perpetuating bad ideas and limited views. They want students to extend the benefit of the doubt to others but they themselves rarely do this with the en masse young population.

There are other moments where their efforts are comical. They talk about the supposed rising violence of students (which seems strange if they are being coddled) and how violence is not acceptable. They start this chapter with a quote from Nelson Mandela and later come back to him as proof positive that violence is not the answer. Of course, this represents the same superficiality of thought that they condemn students for because Mandela did, in fact, justify violence. These types of moments are common in the book. They lambast students, faculty, and the left for thinking in black and white and from a "common threat" approach, but they do the same, time and again, interpreting student acts in nefarious ways with aggrandizing language (things are shocking, startling, upsetting, etc) and fail to give much due consideration beyond validating that the students were clearly limited in their thinking. They point to the extremes and cite various studies about how people "feel" that colleges are becoming increased places of censorship. They rely on research from the organization, FIRE, a free-speech entity to affirm their points about how increasingly colleges are declining invitation to controversial figures. Given that there are thousands of colleges in the US, with each, likely to invited a hundred or more people to talk in a given year, the number of de-invitation is so limited and insubstantial that it's not even a real issue. But they don't give that context (a few hundred among hundreds of thousands) nor do they actually count the number of controversial voices (something, they never really qualify) that do actually end up speaking on campuses.

Even their arrangement of the book seems to want to coddle readers more than to educate and engage with them. They start with overemphasizing and fixating on the supposed problems, then show extremes of it, and then finally talk about how we got there, before enlightening readers on how to fix it (of course, more CBT is always a good go-to for them). The thing about this approach is that it gives readers plenty to get frenzied about and by the time one gets to the reasons' it becomes irrelevant, which seems the point. That is, it assumes its validity without giving much reason, thus stoking the already likely biases of people looking to pick up a book with a title such as there. They don't want people to think or care much about the reasons, they just seem to want people to react.

Finally, in many ways, they replicate the Jordan Peterson tactic of having a psychology background and professional life and using it to passively assess and diagnose the problems of people they don't know directly but are fine with generalizing and waxing intellectually--it's amazing how so many of the problems with youth today could just be solved with cognitive behavioral therapy (since that is the career of one of the authors).

In the end, the book points to some significant issues about that are impacting the lives of students and that would be a fascinating book to have more of, but their emphasis on the worse of youth is just another hackneyed effort that tells us how horrible kids are today.

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