The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan
Haidt. Penguin Press, 2018. 338 pp. $28.00.
Soon after reading The Coddling of the American Mind I came across a "Dear Abby" column in which a woman asked how to deal with a neighbor who wanted her to withdraw her athletically talented son from a charity race lest he outperform the neighbor's not-so-talented son by "winning the race and boasting to the point where her child would feel like a loser and have more self-esteem issues." I read "Dear Abby" to keep my generally dim opinion of human nature intact, but this seemed a new low. Had I or almost any boy of my generation discovered his mother had made such a request, he would have put a sack over his head and run away from home in embarrassment--an option probably not available to the neighbor's son whose mother most likely won't let him cross the street by himself. In so far as she is typical, this mother is part of the problem analyzed in The Coddling of the American Mind--rather than encouraging her son to train better to run faster, she wants to reduce the competition, to make the challenge easier. The Dodo Bird in Alice in Wonderland may have spoken for this emerging ethos when he announced the results of the Caucus Race: "Everybody has won and all shall have prizes."
Greg Lukianoff, a lawyer, is the CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)--to which candor compels me to confess that I have been a long time contributor--and Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University's Stern School of Business. In 2015 they published in The Atlantic an essay with the same title as the current book making essentially the same argument, but discovered in the subsequent years that the problem had grown greater and shifted in certain ways in the iGen generation (a name given to the post-millennials, the iPhone-Social Media generation), enough to warrant a reexamination and reappraisal. The illustration in The Atlantic essay--a photo of a child, about a second grader, sitting in a college desk, feet unable to reach the floor--captured perfectly the argument about the current infantilization of college students; but the new information that they adduce and develop demonstrates the iGen comes to college already infantilized--and demanding that they be kept that way. Speech codes, trigger warnings, safe spaces, microaggression call-outs, that whole panoply of "protections"--these are not so much imposed as insisted on. The authors begin with an exemplum about peanuts and allergies. When Jon attends a meeting of parents enrolling their children in school, they are told no peanuts are allowed in school since some student might possibly be allergic to them--and by association no peanut butter, no other kind of nuts, and nothing processed in a factory that processes nuts, such as dried fruits and other snacks are allowed either. When Jon asks if any child in the school is allergic to peanuts, the question is dismissed as irrelevant: it's school policy. The facts were, however, that an allergy suffered by four out of a thousand kids in the 1990s had more than tripled, to fourteen in a thousand, by 2008, according to the same survey using the same methods--that is, when the peanut phobia, and resultant ban, were in full flourish. Studies cognizant of this phenomenon discovered that children exposed to moderate amounts of peanuts early on were much less likely to develop an allergy to them than the control group which had no exposure. "Among the children who had been 'protected' from peanuts, 17% had developed a peanut allergy. In the group that had been deliberately exposed to peanut products, only 3% had developed an allergy." As one researcher concluded, not only was the peanut phobia scientifically incorrect, it "may have contributed to the rise in peanut and other food allergies." And what is true in this one instance holds true generally: too little exposure to microbes leads immune systems to overreact to substances that they have no tolerance for--causing allergies. "In the same way," explains developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, "by shielding children from every...