posted on September 25, 2018 11:40
BkRev #1849: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. (2018). Grek Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. New York: Penguin Press, 352 pp. $18.30, ISBN 978-0735-22489-6. URL to book: https://www.amazon.com/Coddling-American-Mind-Intentions-Generation/dp/0735224897
Review by Tiffany Karalis Noel, Ph.D., Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education, University of Virginia, firstname.lastname@example.org
Caution: May Contain Nuts. Take a trip down memory lane to the mid-1990s peanut allergy epidemic. Remember when it seemed like more than half of the students in a given classroom were allergic to peanuts? Teachers, parents, and students were prohibited from bringing snacks or birthdays treats containing nuts to school? After cleverly jogging your memory of the peanut allergy era and describing a 2015 study that revealed regular exposure to peanuts during infancy elicits a protective response rather than an allergic immune reaction among children, Lukianoff and Haidt use this example as a framework for explaining why overprotection is often more harmful than helpful to the long-term emotional development of today’s students.
Not to say that it has ever been easy, but finding ways to navigate the complex culture of today’s K-12 classrooms and college campuses has become a daunting task for educators, administrators, and students alike. In Lukianoff and Haidt’s (2018) text, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, the authors use their combined expertise in psychology and law unpack what they call three Great Untruths that pervade today’s education system.
One of the Great Untruths, The Untruth of Fragility, refers to the idea that “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”. Lukianoff and Haidt reference trigger warnings, or alerts that potentially distressing material may be present in the material, as an example of how today’s students are thought of as fragile and requiring protection from potential negative encounters with speech and/or texts (pp. 7-8). To reverse this paradox of overprotection as a catalyst for vulnerability, the authors strategically thread statistics and thoughtful anecdotes throughout the book; their narratives assert that confrontations with mentally and emotionally challenging material will better prepare students for the inevitable hardships of daily life. Therefore, rather than counterproductively encourage students to avoid emotional reactions triggered by course material in the classroom, teachers can expose students to potentially upsetting stimuli and skillfully implement pedagogical techniques as a form of therapy rather than overprotection.
While proponents of “safetyism”, a culture that promotes safety to the point where people are overprotected from life stressors, may argue that students’ exposure to potentially upsetting stimuli is harmful to their psyche, the research-based argument that Lukianoff and Haidt assert is similar to the way cognitive behavioral therapists treat trauma patients (pp. 29). Exposing trauma patients to the stimuli they find upsetting, cognitive behavioral therapists activate their fears and help them grow accustomed to the stimuli rather than practice avoidance (pp. 29). Referring back to the peanut allergy example, like our immune systems many of the other important systems in human life “require stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow” (pp. 23). As such, Lukianoff and Haidt dismiss “resilience” as an overused term and call for greater attention to the term “antifragile” (pp. 22). That is, the ironic danger of safetyism is that students will not develop as antifragile beings.
One particular flaw that should be researched further for The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure is the connection that researchers have explored between distressing speech and/or texts and physical harm. While the book focuses on the disadvantages of overprotecting students from material that may be emotionally harmful, using the findings of scientific studies such as the 2017 study conducted by the University of Michigan’s LSA Inclusive Teaching Initiative to discuss implications for protecting students from emotional traumatic material that may also be physically harmful would be a worthwhile debate.
Lukianoff, G. & Haidt, J. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. New York, NY: Penguin Press.
Resource developed, framed, and hosted by the LSA Inclusive Teaching Initiative, University of Michigan (http://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching/).