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From a Cult of Safety to Wise Society, Maybe

Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” is among the most important books that I’ve read in the past 20 years. It caused me to rethink political debates and to change my approach to most discussions. That is a high bar and, while “Coddling of the American Mind” doesn’t reach it, it is certainly worth reading. My problem with the book is not that I disagreed with it. Rather, I agreed with so much of the first two parts that I almost stopped reading. That would have been a serious mistake.

To write this book, Haidt teamed up with Greg Lukianoff, head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) a group that I respect and have previously supported financially. (Note to self: don’t forget to write a check to FIRE this year). The narrative recounts the movements on college campuses to suppress speech that does not conform to an approved agenda. The authors further explain how we got here and suggest that, left unchecked, this trend could contribute to the erosion of democracy.

It is this portion of the book that I found to be fascinating. Haidt and Lukianoff don’t just bemoan the polarization in society, they identify six threads that have driven the phenomenon. Among those, two stand out in my mind.

The first is the developmental distortions that flow from “paranoid parenting,” which results in emotionally fragile children. Although I had never thought much about how I grew up, I assumed that children today had experiences that did not differ greatly from my own. In today’s environment, my parents might have been arrested for allowing me to roam the streets with a group of friends and, heaven forbid, take a gun into the woods alone to hunt squirrels and other small creatures.

As children, we learned to settle arguments among ourselves. Playing back-yard football, we adapted the official rules to the time, space and physical limits that we faced as pre-teens and adapted then again when, as teenagers, we could play in a larger space. We learned to interact with each other to find common ground and achieve a common goal even if we were on different sides.

Today’s college students did not learn to resolve conflicts informally. They grew up with helicopter parents, tight schedules, referees, umpires and externally imposed rules. As college students, they now seek out higher authorities to settle matters that could have been dealt with informally. Having never had a fist-fight on the playground, they don’t know to settle and forget about disputes. Thus, they are quick to take offense at an insensitive remark. Rather than assume that a speaker was simply insensitive, too many young people label a quip as a “micro-aggression” and file a complaint about it.

Haidt and Lukianoff also contend that the ubiquitous smart phone contributes to social isolation, depression and even suicide among those in what they call “iGen.” The data supporting this conclusion strongly suggest that electronic isolation leads to depression.

The second point that struck me as critically important is how this culture of “safetyism” morphed into a bureaucracy of safetyism on college campuses with administrators covering every possible liability as though a lawsuit were lurking around every corner. Responding to requests from students, they establish “speech codes” and “bias response teams.” The result is what the authors call “moral dependency” as students look to an established order to resolve conflicts.

I cannot say that I agree with every assertion in the book. In particular, I was perplexed by an assertion that those born between 1950 and 1954 vote differently than those born before 1950 or from 1955 on. The answer, say the authors, is 1968 – the year in which Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated and the Vietnam War was at a nadir. They quote political scientists who examined the data and postulated the theory that there is a “window of high impressionability” in the ten-year span from the middle-teen years to age 24 when the perception of political trauma will “stick.”

Based on this theory, Haidt and Lukianoff theorize that those who hit that “window” between 2009 and 2017 will react in a similar way to the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and several mass shootings. Their list of events that will “stick” include gay rights, terrorism and campus protests.

I have trouble with the idea that the members of iGen responded in a predictable way to the events listed. I certainly didn’t respond to the events of 1968 as did those in the studies that Haidt and Lukianoff cite. That was the year that I graduated from college and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam was broadcast on the nightly news. I responded by joining the U.S. Marine Corps. Their assumption about how people react to emotionally significant events at impressionable ages clearly did not apply to me. I have difficulty assuming that it will apply universally to the members of iGen.

The complete title of the book includes an extension: “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Set Up a Generation for Failure.” Indeed, readers will be left wondering what will become of the iGen cohort. Contrarian that I am, I suspect that upon leaving college, many of these students will finally mature and will be forced to swim, not sink. To swim they must engage in experiential learning, which is to say, that once in the real world, they will be forced to learn from their mistakes.

In the “Coddling of the American Mind,” Haidt and Lukianoff are telling us that we must learn from our mistakes. Just as we allowed society to drive a culture of safetyism, we must now embrace the idea that education is to “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” They pose a series of common-sense steps to bring adventure back to childhood. Their ultimate goal is to create a wise society. This book is a major contribution to that goal. Holwill & Company


Ambassador Richard N. Holwill served as U.S Ambassador to Ecuador from 1988 to 1989. His areas of expertise include international trade, international investment disputes, and the resolution of business problems in foreign markets.

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