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20191215 – The Coddling of American Mind



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The main idea of this book is to demonstrate how contemporary American Academia violate or even trying completely eliminate the great Western tradition of free thinking and research, propagating untruths and hurting the young generation of students. It is also to demonstrate how this generation is already severally handicapped by development of super safe parenting, fear of exposure to reality, and social media that leaves young people with no experience of real social interaction by substituting it with remote electronic forms. The main idea also includes recommendations for how to move to wiser kids, universities, and eventually society by acting according to the rules and ideas of Western traditions that served well to create prosperous society that leftists are trying to destroy.


INTRODUCTION: The Search for Wisdom

Here authors explore untruth that currently taught to the young generations:

This is a book about three Great Untruths that seem to have spread widely in recent years:

  • The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  • The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  • The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

While many propositions are untrue, in order to be classified as a Great Untruth, an idea must meet three criteria:

  • It contradicts ancient wisdom (ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures).
  • It contradicts modern psychological research on wellbeing.
  • It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.

Authors also discusses in introduction their experiences as leftist academics who observed changes in universities from 1970 till now and got scared by massive debilitating impact on the young generation of massive indoctrination, suppression of free speech and free thinking and isolation of student from exposure to Western culture and its values.

PART I: Three Bad Ideas

CHAPTER 1 The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker

Here author discusses correctness of usual wisdom:” What does not kill you makes you stronger”, even if it is not absolute and critic its opposite that is in vogue in colleges right now. They refer to Antifragility, which is normal product of evolutionary process human development and retell how it is undermined by Safetyism, implementation of Safe spaces, and such. Their conclusions are:

  • Children, like many other complex adaptive systems, are Antifragile. Their brains require a wide range of inputs from their environments in order to configure themselves for those environments. Like the immune system, children must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits, and in age-appropriate ways), or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions. Concepts sometimes creep.
  • Concepts like trauma and safety have expanded so far since the 1980s that they are often employed in ways that are no longer grounded in legitimate psychological research. Grossly expanded conceptions of trauma and safety are now used to justify the overprotection of children of all ages—even college students, who are sometimes said to need safe spaces and trigger warnings lest words and ideas put them in danger.
  • Safetyism is the cult of safety—an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined) to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. Safetyism deprives young people of the experiences that their Antifragile minds need, thereby making them more fragile, anxious, and prone to seeing themselves as victims.

CHAPTER 2 The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Feelings

This is about handling emotions and most important not to become slave of one’s emotions. One of expressions of emotional debility of contemporary students, especially leftist is disinvitation of speakers on campus. They provide nice graph for frequency of such idiocy:

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Here is summarization of this chapter:

  • Among the most universal psychological insights in the world’s wisdom traditions is that what really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves but the way in which we think about them, as Epictetus put it.
  • CBT is a method anyone can learn for identifying common cognitive distortions and then changing their habitual patterns of thinking. CBT helps the rider (controlled processing) to train the elephant (automatic processing), resulting in better critical thinking and mental health.
  • Emotional reasoning is among the most common of all cognitive distortions; most people would be happier and more effective if they did less of it.
  • The term “microaggressions” refers to a way of thinking about brief and commonplace indignities and slights communicated to people of color (and others). Small acts of aggression are real, so the term could be useful, but because the definition includes accidental and unintentional offenses, the word “aggression” is misleading. Using the lens of microaggressions may amplify the pain experienced and the conflict that ensues. (On the other hand, there is nothing “micro” about intentional acts of aggression and bigotry.)
  • By encouraging students to interpret the actions of others in the least generous way possible, schools that teach students about microaggressions may be encouraging students to engage in emotional reasoning and other distortions while setting themselves up for higher levels of distrust and conflict.
  • Karith Foster offers an example of using empathy to reappraise actions that could be interpreted as microaggressions. When she interpreted those actions as innocent (albeit insensitive) misunderstandings, it led to a better outcome for everyone.
  • The number of efforts to “disinvite” speakers from giving talks on campus has increased in the last few years; such efforts are often justified by the claim that the speaker in question will cause harm to students. But discomfort is not danger. Students, professors, and administrators should understand the concept of Antifragility and keep in mind Hanna Holborn Gray’s principle: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.”

CHAPTER 3 The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life Is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People

This is about identity politics, which authors contrast with MLK’s common-humanity approach. Authors also discuss intersectionality and provide nice graph explaining this concept:

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Here is the summary of the chapter:

  • The human mind evolved for living in tribes that engaged in frequent (and often violent) conflict; our modern-day minds readily divide the world into “us” and “them,” even on trivial or arbitrary criteria, as Henri Tajfel’s psychological experiments demonstrated.
  • Identity politics takes many forms. Some forms, such as that practiced by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pauli Murray, can be called common-humanity identity politics, because its practitioners humanize their opponents and appeal to their humanity while also applying political pressure in other ways.
  • Common-enemy identity politics, on the other hand, tries to unite a coalition using the psychology embedded in the Bedouin proverb “I against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.” It is used on the far right as well as the far left.
  • Intersectionality is a popular intellectual framework on campuses today; certain versions of it teach students to see multiple axes of privilege and oppression that intersect. While there are merits to the theory, the way it is interpreted and practiced on campus can sometimes amplify tribal thinking and encourage students to endorse the Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.
  • Common-enemy identity politics, when combined with microaggression theory, produces a call-out culture in which almost anything one says or does could result in a public shaming. This can engender a sense of “walking on eggshells,” and it teaches students habits of self-censorship. Call-out cultures are detrimental to students’ education and bad for their mental health. Call-out cultures and us-versus-them thinking are incompatible with the educational and research missions of universities, which require free inquiry, dissent, evidence-based argument, and intellectual honesty.“

Part II: Bad ideas in Action

In this part authors “show the Great Untruths in action. We examine the “shout-downs,” intimidation, and occasional violence that are making it more difficult for universities to fulfill their core missions of education and research. We explore the newly popular idea that speech is violence, and we show why thinking this way is bad for students’ mental health. We explore the sociology of witch-hunts and moral panics, including the conditions that can cause a college to descend into chaos.”

CHAPTER 4 Intimidation and Violence

Here authors move to contemporary left’s Orwellian ideas like “Words are Violence; Violence is Safety”. Here is authors’ summary:

  • The “Milo Riot” at UC Berkeley on February 1, 2017, marked a major shift in campus protests. Violence was used successfully to stop a speaker; people were injured, and there were (as far as we can tell) no costs to those who were violent. Some students later justified the violence, as a legitimate form of “self-defense” to prevent speech that they said was violent.
  • Hardly any students say that they themselves would use violence to shut down a speech, but two surveys conducted in late 2017 found that substantial minorities of students (20% in one survey and 30% in the other) said it was sometimes “acceptable” for other students to use violence to prevent a speaker from speaking on campus.
  • The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a white nationalist killed a peaceful counterprotester and injured others, further raised tensions on campus, especially as provocations from far-right groups increased in the months afterward.
  • In the fall of 2017, the number of efforts to shut down speakers reached a record level.
  • In 2017, the idea that speech can be violence (even when it does not involve threats, harassment, or calls for violence) seemed to spread, assisted by the tendency in some circles to focus only on perceived impact, not on intent. Words that give rise to stress or fear for members of some groups are now often regarded as a form of violence.
  • Speech is not violence. Treating it as such is an interpretive choice, and it is a choice that increases pain and suffering while preventing other, more effective responses, including the Stoic response (cultivating nonreactivity) and the antifragile response suggested by Van Jones: “Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity.”

CHAPTER 5 Witch Hunts

Here authors discuss history of witch-hunt and note that it happens when some ideologies came to dominate and then trying to retain this dominance forever. They provide graph demonstrating left dominance in universities:

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They also discuss some recent events and provide summary of the chapter:

  • Humans are tribal creatures who readily form groups to compete with other groups (as we saw in chapter 3). Sociologist Emile Durkheim’s work illuminates the way those groups engage in rituals—including the collective punishment of deviance—to enhance their cohesion and solidarity.
  • Cohesive and morally homogeneous groups are prone to witch hunts, particularly when they experience a threat, whether from outside or from within.
  • Witch hunts generally have four properties: they seem to come out of nowhere; they involve charges of crimes against the collective; the offenses that lead to those charges are often trivial or fabricated; and people who know that the accused is innocent keep quiet, or in extreme cases, they join the mob.
  • Some of the most puzzling campus events and trends since 2015 match the profile of a witch hunt. The campus protests at Yale, Claremont McKenna, and Evergreen all began as reactions to politely worded emails, and all led to demands that the authors of the emails be fired. (We repeat that the concerns that provide the context for a witch-hunt may be valid, but in a witch-hunt, the attendant fears are channeled in unjust and destructive ways.)
  • The new trend in 2017 for professors to join open letters denouncing their colleagues and demanding the retraction or condemnation of their work (as happened to Rebecca Tuvel, Amy Wax, and others) also fits this pattern. In all of these cases, colleagues of the accused were afraid to publicly stand up and defend them.
  • Viewpoint diversity reduces a community’s susceptibility to witch-hunts. One of the most important kinds of viewpoint diversity, diversity of political thought, has declined substantially among both professors and students at American universities since the 1990s. These declines, combined with the rapidly escalating political polarization of the United States (which is our focus in the next chapter), may be part of the reason why the new culture of safetyism has spread so rapidly since its emergence around 2013.

PART Ill: How Did We Get Here’?

In Part III authors “try to solve the mystery. Why did things change so rapidly on many campuses between 2013 and 2017? We identify six explanatory threads: the rising political polarization and cross-party animosity of U.S. politics, which has led to rising hate crimes and harassment on campus; rising levels of teen anxiety and depression, which have made many students more desirous of protection and more receptive to the Great Untruths; changes in parenting practices, which have amplified children’s fears even as childhood becomes increasingly safe; the loss of free play and unsupervised risk-taking, both of which kids need to become self-governing adults; the growth of campus bureaucracy and expansion of its protective mission; and an increasing passion for justice, combined with changing ideas about what justice requires. These six trends did not influence everyone equally, but they have all begun to intersect and interact on college campuses in the United States in the last few years.”

CHAPTER 6 The Polarization Cycle

Here authors discuss polarization between political parties:

  • The United States has experienced a steady increase in at least one form of polarization since the 1980s: affective (or emotional) polarization, which means that people who identify with either of the two main political parties increasingly hate and fear the other party and the people in it. This is our first of six explanatory threads that will help us understand what has been changing on campus.
  • Affective polarization in the United States is roughly symmetrical, but as university students and faculty have shifted leftward during a time of rising cross-party hatred, universities have begun to receive less trust and more hostility from some conservatives and right-leaning organizations.
  • Beginning in 2016, the number of high-profile cases of professors being hounded or harassed from the right for something they said in an interview or on social media began to increase.
  • Rising political polarization, accompanied by increases in racial and political provocation from the right, usually directed from off-campus to on-campus targets, is an essential part of the story of why behavior is changing on campus, particularly since 2016.

CHAPTER 7 Anxiety and Depression

Being teachers, authors constantly interact with the young generation and they notice dramatic increase in metal problems:

  • The national rise in adolescent anxiety and depression that began around 2011 is our second explanatory thread.
  • The generation born between 1995 and 2012, called iGen (or sometimes Gen Z), is very different from the Millennials, the generation that preceded it. According to Jean Twenge, an expert in the study of generational differences, one difference is that iGen is growing up more slowly. On average, eighteen-year-olds today have spent less time unsupervised and have hit fewer developmental milestones on the path to autonomy (such as getting a job or a driver’s license), compared with eighteen-year-olds in previous generations.
  • A second difference is that iGen has far higher rates of anxiety and depression. The increases for girls and young women are generally much larger than for boys and young men. The increases do not just reflect changing definitions or standards; they show up in rising hospital admission rates of self-harm and in rising suicide rates. The suicide rate of adolescent boys is still higher than that of girls, but the suicide rate of adolescent girls has doubled since 2007.
  • According to Twenge, the primary cause of the increase in mental illness is frequent use of smartphones and other electronic devices. Less than two hours a day seems to have no deleterious effects, but adolescents who spend several hours a day interacting with screens, particularly if they start in their early teen years or younger, have worse mental health outcomes than do adolescents who use these devices less and who spend more time in face-to-face social interaction.
  • Girls may be suffering more than boys because they are more adversely affected by social comparisons (especially based on digitally enhanced beauty), by signals that they are being left out, and by relational aggression, all of which became easier to enact and harder to escape when adolescents acquired smartphones and social media.
  • iGen’s arrival at college coincides exactly with the arrival and intensification of the culture of safetyism from 2013 to 2017. Members of iGen may be especially attracted to the overprotection offered by the culture of safetyism on many campuses because of students’ higher levels of anxiety and depression. Both depression and anxiety cause changes in cognition, including a tendency to see the world as more dangerous and hostile than it really is.

CHAPTER 8 Paranoid Parenting

This chapter is about paranoid parenting that become typical in America:

  • Paranoid parenting is our third explanatory thread.
  • When we overprotect children, we harm them. Children are naturally antifragile, so overprotection makes them weaker and less resilient later on.
  • Children today have far more restricted childhoods, on average, than those enjoyed by their parents, who grew up in far more dangerous times and yet had many more opportunities to develop their intrinsic antifragility. Compared with previous generations, younger Millennials and especially members of iGen (born in and after 1995) have been deprived of unsupervised time for play and exploration. They have missed out on many of the challenges, negative experiences, and minor risks that help children develop into strong, competent, and independent adults (as we’ll show in the next chapter).
  • Children in the United States and other prosperous countries are safer today than at any other point in history. Yet for a variety of historical reasons, fear of abduction is still very high among American parents, many of whom have come to believe that children should never be without adult supervision. When children are repeatedly led to believe that the world is dangerous and that they cannot face it alone, we should not be surprised if many of them believe it.
  • Helicopter parenting combined with laws and social norms that make it hard to give kids unsupervised time may be having a negative impact on the mental health and resilience of young people today.
  • There are large social class differences in parenting styles. Families in the middle class (and above) tend to use a style that sociologist Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation,” in contrast to the “natural growth parenting” used by families in the working class (and below). Some college students from wealthier families may have been rendered more fragile from overparenting and oversupervision. College students from poorer backgrounds are exposed to a very different set of risks, including potential exposure to chronic, severe adversity, which is especially detrimental to resilience when children lack caring relationships with adults who can buffer stress and help them turn adversity into growth.
  • Paranoid parenting prepares today’s children to embrace the three Great Untruths, which means that when they go to college, they are psychologically primed to join a culture of safetyism.

CHAPTER 9 The Decline of Play

This chapter is about necessity of play for development not only humans, but also animals and how American children now deprived of this necessity:

  • The decline of unsupervised free play is our fourth explanatory thread. Children, like other mammals, need free play in order to finish the intricate wiring process of neural development. Children deprived of free play are likely to be less competent—physically and socially—as adults. They are likely to be less tolerant of risk, and more prone to anxiety disorders.
  • Free play, according to Peter Gray, is “activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself.” This is the kind of play that play experts say is most valuable for children, yet it is also the kind of play that has declined most sharply in the lives of American children.
  • The decline in free play was likely driven by several factors, including an unrealistic fear of strangers and kidnapping (since the 1980s); the rising competitiveness for admission to top universities (over many decades); a rising emphasis on testing, test preparation, and homework; and a corresponding deemphasis on physical and social skills (since the early 2000s).
  • The rising availability of smartphones and social media interacted with these other trends, and the combination has greatly changed the way American children spend their time and the kinds of physical and social experiences that guide the intricate wiring process of neural development.
  • Free play helps children develop the skills of cooperation and dispute resolution that are closely related to the “art of association” upon which democracies depend. When citizens are not skilled in this art, they are less able to work out the ordinary conflicts of daily life. They will more frequently call for authorities to apply coercive force to their opponents. They will be more likely to welcome the bureaucracy of safetyism.

CHAPTER 10 The Bureaucracy of Safetyism

This is basically about people who benefit from all this – bureaucrats:

  • The growth of campus bureaucracy and the expansion of its protective mission is our fifth explanatory thread.
  • Administrators generally have good intentions; they are trying to protect the university and its students. But good intentions can sometimes lead to policies that are bad for students. At Northern Michigan University, a policy that we assume was designed to protect the university from liability led to inhumane treatment of students seeking therapy.
  • In response to a variety of factors, including federal mandates and the risk of lawsuits, the number of campus administrators has grown more rapidly than the number of professors, and professors have gradually come to play a smaller role in the administration of universities. The result has been a trend toward “corporatization.”
  • At the same time, market pressures, along with an increasingly consumerist mentality about higher education, have encouraged universities to compete on the basis of the amenities they offer, leading them to think of students as customers whom they must please.
  • Campus administrators must juggle many responsibilities and protect the university from many kinds of liabilities, so they tend to adopt a “better safe than sorry” (or “CYA”) approach to issuing new regulations. The proliferation of regulations over time conveys a sense of imminent danger even when there is little or no real threat. In this way, administrators model multiple cognitive distortions, promote the Untruth of Fragility, and contribute to the culture of safetyism.
  • Some of the regulations promulgated by administrators restrict freedom of speech, often with highly subjective definitions of key concepts. These rules contribute to an attitude on campus that chills speech, in part by suggesting that freedom of speech can or should be restricted because of some students’ emotional discomfort. This teaches catastrophizing and mind reading (among other cognitive distortions) and promotes the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning.
  • One recent administrative innovation is the creation of “Bias Response Lines” and “Bias Response Teams,” which make it easy for members of a campus community to report one another anonymously for “bias.” This “feel something, say something” approach is likely to erode trust within a community. It may also make professors less willing to try innovative or provocative teaching methods; they, too, may develop a CYA approach.
  • More generally, efforts to protect students by creating bureaucratic means of resolving problems and conflicts can have the unintended consequence of fostering moral dependence, which may reduce students’ ability to resolve conflicts independently both during and after college.

CHAPTER 11 The Quest for Justice

Here authors expand on leftist understanding of justice and provide timetable of events that impacted their perception of current situation. Here is their summary:

  • Political events in the years from 2012 to 2018 have been as emotionally powerful as any since the late 1960s. Today’s college students and student protesters are responding to these events with a powerful commitment to social justice activism. This is our sixth and final explanatory thread.
  • People’s ordinary, everyday, intuitive notions of justice include two major types: distributive justice (the perception that people are getting what is deserved) and procedural justice (the perception that the process by which things are distributed and rules are enforced is fair and trustworthy).
  • The most common way that people think about distributive justice is captured by equity theory, which states that things are perceived to be fair when the ratio of outcomes to inputs is equal for all participants.
  • Procedural justice is about how decisions are being made, and is also about how people are treated along the way, as procedures unfold.
  • Social justice is a central concept in campus life today, and it takes a variety of forms. When social justice efforts are fully consistent with both distributive and procedural justice, we call it proportional-procedural social justice. Such efforts generally aim to remove barriers to equality of opportunity and also to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity. But when social justice efforts aim to achieve equality of outcomes by group, and when social justice activists are willing to violate distributive or procedural fairness for some individuals along the way, these efforts violate many people’s sense of intuitive justice. We call these equal-outcomes social justice.
  • Correlation does not imply causation. Yet in many discussions in universities these days, the correlation of a demographic trait or identity group membership with an outcome gap is taken as evidence that discrimination (structural or individual) caused the outcome gap. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t, but if people can’t raise alternative possible causal explanations without eliciting negative consequences, then the community is unlikely to arrive at an accurate understanding of the problem. And without understanding the true nature of a problem, there is little chance of solving it.

Part IV: Wising Up

In the final part authors “offer advice. We suggest specific actions that will help parents and teachers to raise wiser, stronger, more independent children, and we suggest ways in which professors, administrators, and college students can improve their universities and adapt them for life in our age of technology-enhanced outrage.“

CHAPTER 12 Wiser Kids

Here authors discuss how to raise kids to be ready for real world. It is mainly to provide knowledge of this real world, train to rely on sober analysis, rather than emptions and feelings, develop resilience to opinions and even hostility of others, avoid confrontation because good and evil are inside people not between groups of people. They also propose a practical measure: do service or work before college.

CHAPTER 13 Wiser Universities

For universities authors’ recommendations are: defend freedom of inquiry; pick more mature students; look for viewpoint diversity, and educate for “productive disagreement”.

CONCLUSION Wiser Societies

In conclusion authors summarize the whole book in one small table:

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I find in somewhat charming and encouraging that authors, despite being leftists, nevertheless are capable to think, analyze, and understand the harm the current takeover of higher education by the left is causing not only to students and universities, but also to internal peace of the country. The eye opening for them came from situation when more extreme leftists attack less extreme the same way as they attack conservatives. It looks like something called self-preservation kicks in, making them more reasonable. This self-preservation expands also to their children and way of live because being smart people they seems to understand that combination of debilitating education based on primacy of emotion, denial of intellectual freedoms, and aggressive attempts to suppress others could lead to such powerful pushback from these others that would force them to lose their comfortable way of life. Certainly, being leftists, they comply with compulsory requirement to say some lies about Trump and express their hate, but to me it seems like they do not have real passion behind this. Anyway, I think in general it is great development and whatever these people can do, and they are really trying, to return American education back to traditions of Western civilization would be a valuable help in this struggle.

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