Book Review - The Coddling of The American Mind - New York Times

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Book Review - The Coddling of The American Mind - New York Times

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Does Our Cultural Obsession With Safety Spell the Downfall of Democracy?

Review by Thomas Chatterton Williams - the author of a memoir, “Losing My Cool,” and a contributing writer at The Times Magazine. His next book is about the illusion of race.

Aug. 27, 2018

NB: Joint review of 2 books –

Identity Politics, Inequality, and Community on Today’s College Campuses
By William Egginton
263 pp. Bloomsbury.

How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure
By Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
338 pp. Penguin Press.

Earlier this summer, a white poet named Anders Carlson-Wee published “How-To,” in The Nation. It’s a brief verse riffing on the various performances many homeless people must undertake in order to render themselves visible to passers-by. “If you got hiv, say aids,” Carlson-Wee wrote. “If you a girl, say you’re pregnant — nobody gonna lower themselves to listen for the kick. People passing fast.” Corny, perhaps, but it’s hard not to see this as an exercise, however forced or clumsy, in empathy. A few weeks later, The Nation appended a lengthy editor’s note — longer than the work itself — to the original post, stating that the poem “contains disparaging and ableist language that has given offense and caused harm to members of several communities.” One particularly offending line read: “If you’re crippled don’t flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough Christians to notice.” Carlson-Wee apologized, too, acknowledging on Twitter that the criticism had been “eye-opening.” The first reply to this tweet of contrition was a seemingly serious further rebuke: The phrase “eye-opening” was dismissive of the visually impaired.

If it feels as though we no longer know how to speak or listen in good faith to one another, it’s because we don’t. This is the kind of controversy that might have seemed overblown as recently as the start of the Obama administration. Today it arrives with frequency and fervor — a marker of the country’s rapidly shifting mores, which are the product of new generations increasingly fluent in, in thrall to and in fear of the hyperspecialized language and norms of academia. Whether you even find the above exchange intelligible reveals a great deal more than merely your political bent, touching on aspects of age, education and geography — not to mention distinctions of race and class.

How did we arrive at this fraught place where the use of nothing more sinister than a body metaphor can assume the power to cause harm? Two timely new books attempt to make sense of the various cultural processes happening on social and in traditional media and, above all, in and around our nation’s (mostly selective, four-year) college campuses. Whether we realize it or not, these processes have radically transformed the ways in which we speak about and to one another and give and take offense, exposing far larger and more significant currents in our national political and social life.

In “The Splintering of the American Mind,” William Egginton, a humanities professor at Johns Hopkins, examines the competing costs and benefits of the country’s continuing shift away from a commonly accepted — albeit white — canon of shared narratives to an “exploration and celebration of marginalized racial and sexual identities.” He devotes a significant chunk of the book to one of the most vexing problems of our time — rampant inequality of both economic and social capital — and demonstrates the complicated and sometimes inadvertent ways in which our winner-take-all higher education system exacerbates and locks this in.

Consider that as recently as 1970 only about 10 percent of the United States population, more or less evenly spread out across the country, held a college degree. The number today is closer to one-third, and is distributed highly unevenly, sorting the nation into ever more homogeneous and incommensurate swaths. This development is as understandable as its consequences have been devastating. When, during the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump gloated, “I love the uneducated,” his sentiments were cynical but not unjustified. “As Americans have become more educated and more mobile,” Egginton writes, “those with educations are increasingly moving to communities where there are others who have similar levels of education.” A map of Trump country would look a lot like a map of the various regions and counties from which young people with the best opportunities have consistently chosen to flee.

The fracturing and castigating discourse around identity, coupled with metastasizing inequality of both opportunity and outcome, leads Egginton to make the necessary if familiar case that a humanities education — however out of fashion and reach for many Americans — is still the “key in the formation of a public capable of democratic self-governance.” The liberal tradition, accessible to all and capable of generating an expansive common narrative that takes note of America in all her tribal guises and evokes sufficient “fellow feeling,” is, for Egginton, our only hope out of the bind.

“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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