Are we training people to fear rather than think?

By Ande Jacobson

Historically, the bastions of higher learning were centers of intellectual stimulation where students could gain exposure to myriad concepts, ideas, and philosophies and could participate in scientific advancement. The learning process gave students not only exposure to a broad spectrum of ideas, it helped them learn to examine those ideas critically to separate fact from fiction. It also taught them important skills to deal with intellectual and social challenges. It sometimes made them uncomfortable and encouraged them to use that discomfort to stretch themselves and grow. They learned the great value of being challenged intellectually as well as skills necessary for conflict resolution without resorting to violence. Starting around 2013, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt noticed a disturbing trend that was beginning to assert itself and was antithetical to the broad pursuit of knowledge on which colleges and universities thrived. This trend was exemplified by a combination “three Great Untruths:”

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

These three concepts are the basis for Lukianoff and Haidt’s 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. They use the following criteria to determine if something is a Great Untruth (it must meet all three criteria):

  1. It contradicts ancient wisdom (ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures).
  2. It contradicts modern psychological research on well-being.
  3. It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.

The phenomenon they were seeing on campuses was a rising culture where students demanded protection from ideas with which they disagreed or found offensive in any way claiming that even being exposed to such information was dangerous. At times, students used violent protests to enforce their demands. Aside from creating a First Amendment free speech crisis, this often included revolts against classic coursework. Students also forced college administrators to disinvite speakers and dismiss targeted faculty or administrators. Since 2013, this all has escalated, especially as the political divisions across the country have intensified.

Beyond a sudden shift in student behavior, this phenomenon arose in concert with a significant increase in cases of childhood and young adult anxiety disorders and depression. The authors wanted not only to examine these related phenomena, they wanted to offer solutions to reverse the damage being done to the upcoming generation. They are quick to point out that this shift didn’t include Millennials or the generations preceding them which were more resilient, or antifragile. They noticed the behavioral shift as those born after 1994 known as the internet generation (iGen) or Gen Z began arriving on college campuses. Interestingly, this is also the first generation to have grown up with social media and ubiquitous smartphones. While correlation is not causation, there are several studies that show a tight linkage between the expanding use of social media and a culture of overprotection (or safetyism) that has developed. This culture has caused a shift in behavior that feeds fear and anxiety.

Lukianoff and Haidt begin their book vividly introducing their core concepts. They explain how embracing the three Great Untruths, no matter how well-intentioned, creates a culture of overprotection that has gone awry. They disclose that they first presented a condensed version of this material in an article they co-wrote for The Atlantic in 2015 (referenced below). Their book is an expanded discussion of the concepts they introduced in that article.

The first section of the book, “Three Bad Ideas,” devotes a chapter to each of the Great Untruths listed above. They explore where these untruths came from, and discuss at length the dangers they pose not only to colleges, but to the students themselves. Embracing these untruths limits cognitive growth, a subject they explore further in the third section of the book.

After providing an expansive history of the untruths at the heart of the problem in Part I, they move on to Part II where they explore the damage adherence to these untruths has caused. They vividly describe numerous student protests and takeovers occurring on campuses over the last several years. The student protestors demonstrating against various speakers claimed that speech itself was violence even in cases where there was no harassment, threats, or calls for violence by a targeted speaker. The students just disagreed with the speakers and went to extraordinary lengths to prevent their presentations. Lukianoff and Haidt then explore how the tribal nature of a community is heightened through witch hunts used to root out unpopular administrators or faculty members that students want dismissed whether there is actual cause or not. These efforts tended to spring up suddenly and have become more prevalent since 2015. Because of the threat of violence, even those who privately support the target of such efforts are bullied into remaining silent, or even joining the mobs striving for their removal. As the diversity of viewpoints narrows, the frequency and severity of such witch hunts increases.

In Part III, the authors explore how this culture of overprotection developed citing six contributing factors and their specific dangers. These factors include:

  1. The Polarization Cycle
  2. Anxiety and Depression
  3. Paranoid Parenting
  4. The Decline of Play
  5. The Bureaucracy of Safetyism
  6. The Quest for Justice

The polarization cycle began in the 1980s and has been mounting in society ever since. This polarization has affected education by attacking the foundations of academic knowledge, not on the basis of whether something is true or false, but from an emotional level that feeds tribalism.

Increases in cases of childhood anxiety and depression started to be noticed in 2011. From their research, the authors have noted that the heavy dependence on social media and smartphones have increased the level of fear and exclusion among young people. Those in Gen Z are hitting various milestones of independence much later than previous generations. Mainstays of adolescence such as having an after school job while in high school or obtaining a driver’s license as soon as one’s state allows have become far less common. This lack of independence increases the likelihood of depression and anxiety which in turn causes changes in cognition that further increases fear.

The section on paranoid parenting explores where a lot of this fear was initially instilled, and it comes from the best of intentions. Previous generations have been allowed to take some risks, and these risks were critical for healthy physical and psychological development. Much of our development occurs through experiential learning, and having little to no unsupervised time doesn’t allow a young person to exercise or even develop skills to judge whether something is truly dangerous. Much of the impetus toward over supervision has resulted from a misperception of increased abduction danger. In reality the risk of abduction has decreased over the years, although it still does happen on occasion. Parents want to keep their children safe, and they are safer now than they’ve ever been, but that comes at a serious developmental cost.

Moving to a position of strict risk avoidance rather than risk mitigation has created its own issues. With risk avoidance, one attempts to prevent all possible risk, and doing so removes important training for future assessment and self-reliance. With risk mitigation, one ensures that risks are understood and allows for the development of mitigating behaviors to lower risk while allowing for some failures from which to learn. The authors provide numerous examples where the perceived risk far exceeds the actual risk. Under the safetyism model, children aren’t given the opportunity to develop the necessary skills to apply their own judgement in challenging situations. The result is that many overprotected kids develop more fear, anxiety, and depression, and embrace the three Great Untruths making them far more fragile. While an overabundance of misfortune or risk can be harmful, never being allowed to fail or deal with difficult circumstances is even more so. The trick is to strike the right balance.

In the next section, Lukianoff and Haidt discuss the harm that removal of free play creates. Unsupervised play is a critical part of mammalian physical and cognitive development. All mammals do this, including humans. For the iGen, unsupervised play is almost non-existent, yet this is a key place where interpersonal cooperation and conflict resolution skills are learned. Not having any unsupervised play time also creates more intolerance of risk and a greater prevalence of anxiety disorders stemming from unrealistic fears. Free play is defined as an activity that is undertaken and controlled solely by the participants. It also has no agenda outside of the activity itself. Toward the end of chapter on the decline of play, a piece of a speech that Chief Justice John Roberts gave at his son’s middle school commencement is included as a contrast to the problems the authors have seen. This speech provides a needed perspective on childhood growth:

“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

The last two sections in Part III address the significant changes on many college campuses driven by the expectations and needs of students ill-prepared for the normal intellectual and social challenges of college life. This creates protections for the students themselves and also for the colleges and universities against an increasingly litigious society with education suffering as a result. Further harm is driven by market forces and a move toward treating students as customers with colleges trying to please them rather than educate them. The legal and bureaucratic response has unintended consequences that amplify students’ moral dependency on authority figures for conflict resolution further limiting their own development in that area.

Finally in Part IV, Wising Up, Lukianoff and Haidt explore numerous solutions to the issues described in Parts I – III. Part IV is broken into three component pieces including:

  1. Wiser Kids
  2. Wiser Universities
  3. Wiser Societies (Conclusion)

The solutions the authors propose don’t have to take another generation to enact if society is willing to embrace changes to not only raise healthier children, but to also make our overall society healthier.

Greg Lukianoff is a lawyer and First Amendment expert as well as the President and CEO of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). Jonathan Haidt is social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU. Their book makes extensive use of a notes section and an expansive reference section citing hundreds of books, academic articles, and traditional journalistic sources to make their case.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
The Coddling of the American Mind (2015 Atlantic article)

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