“The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, proceeds from many of the same premises and touchstones as “Splintering,” but makes a much more disturbing and comprehensive analysis of recent campus trends. The book, which expands on a widely circulated 2015 article in The Atlantic, identifies what the authors refer to as “the three Great Untruths” of the current moment: “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”; “always trust your feelings”; “life is a battle between good people and evil people.” It’s a moment profoundly reshaped in the sanitized image of the hyper-connected and -protected “iGen” generation (short for “internet generation”), which directly succeeds the millennials. Members of iGen, according to the psychologist Jean Twenge, who coined the term, are “obsessed with safety,” which they define to include expansive notions of “emotional safety.” They began arriving on college campuses in 2013. Rates of anxiety and depression soon skyrocketed, along with demands for trigger warnings, safe spaces and disinvitations to controversial speakers, as well as sometimes violent confrontations with such speakers when they did appear on campus.
Lukianoff and Haidt offer a variety of compelling explanations for the rise of the “safetyism” culture that so dominates elite colleges and, increasingly, much journalistic discourse along the lines of The Nation’s editorial note. One of the most intriguing ideas they present is the Australian psychologist Nick Haslam’s notion of “concept creep.” Haslam found that since the 1980s key concepts in clinical and social psychology, including abuse, bullying, trauma and prejudice, have expanded both “downward” and “outward” to apply to less severe circumstances and to take in novel phenomena. “By the early 2000s,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, “the concept of ‘trauma’ within parts of the therapeutic community had crept down so far that it included anything ‘experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful.’”
Where Egginton sees a threat to democracy in a polity insufficiently and unequally educated in the liberal tradition, Lukianoff and Haidt notice something unprecedented and a lot more frightening: a generation, including its most privileged and educated members — especially these members — that has been politically and socially “stunted” by a false and deepening belief in its own fragility. This is a generation engaged in a meritocratic “arms race” of epic proportions, that has racked up the most hours of homework (and screen time) in history but also the fewest ever of something so simple as unsupervised outdoor play. If that sounds trivial, it shouldn’t. “When adult-supervised activities crowd out free play, children are less likely to develop the art of association,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, along with other social skills central to the making of good citizens capable of healthy compromise. Worse, the consequences of a generation unable or disinclined to engage with ideas and interlocutors that make them uncomfortable are dire for society, and open the door — accessible from both the left and the right — to various forms of authoritarianism.
What both of these books make clear from a variety of angles is that if we are going to beat back the regressive populism, mendacity and hyperpolarization in which we are currently mired, we are going to need an educated citizenry fluent in a wise and universal liberalism. This liberalism will neither play down nor fetishize identity grievances, but look instead for a common and generous language to build on who we are more broadly, and to conceive more boldly what we might be able to accomplish in concert. Yet as the tenuousness of even our most noble and seemingly durable civil rights gains grows more apparent by the news cycle, we must also reckon with the possibility that a full healing may forever lie on the horizon. And so we will need citizens who are able to find ways to move on despite this, without letting their discomfort traumatize or consume them. If the American university is not the space to cultivate this strong and supple liberalism, then we are in deep and lasting trouble.
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