Coddled Minds

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Coddled Minds

Jonathan Haidt lectured about possible consequences of

Jonathan Haidt lectured about possible consequences of "coddling" an entire generation.

Martel DenHartog (‘19) | Chips

Jonathan Haidt lectured about possible consequences of "coddling" an entire generation.

Martel DenHartog (‘19) | Chips

Martel DenHartog (‘19) | Chips

Jonathan Haidt lectured about possible consequences of "coddling" an entire generation.

Martel DenHartog, Staff Writer

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Social psychologist, author, and New York University’s Stern School of Business professor Jonathan Haidt spoke as a Farwell Distinguished Lecturer in the Center for Faith and Life Main Hall on Oct. 23 to a crowd of several hundred attendees.

With a presentation titled, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure,” Haidt made an argument outlining what he deems are the three great untruths of our society: “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” “always trust your feelings,” and “life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

Haidt began by outlining his concern with two phenomena emerging on college campuses. The first is “safetyism” — the idea that students are weak and should be protected. The other phenomenon is call-out culture — the phenomenon of denouncing racism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry through explicitly addressing instances of it. Haidt and his colleague Greg Lukianoff noticed this phenomenon between 2013-14 when they detected a rise in college students thinking of themselves as fragile and needing adults to protect them from danger. This protection comes in the form of “safe-spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and a heightened awareness of “microaggressions,” among other things.

Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Ethics and Public Engagement Victoria Christman found Haidt’s lecture to be a valuable contribution to campus-wide discussion on these issues, as it generated a diverse set of reactions from students, faculty, and other community members.

“Haidt’s theses are provocative,” Christman said. “It’s hard to disregard them outright if you’ve actually read his work, but there are also legitimate questions that can be raised about some of his ideas. I think that he’s provoked both positive and negative reactions and that’s great. I hope that people in all corners of the college and Decorah are talking about the lecture with people with whom they disagree.”

Many agreed that American culture is more aware of social issues and more polarized about them. Drew Engberg (’22) connected with what Haidt said about our political climate.

“As a member of what Haidt terms the ‘liberal left’––at least for someone with my political views––he really touches a lot of chords when it comes to the political polarization that we’ve seen in the last couple of years,” Engberg said. “An important aspect of what makes liberal arts colleges as good as they are is supposed to be inter-ideological communication. I feel like he did a good job tackling a lot of the issues regarding that.”

Haidt spoke to rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among the IGen, or GenZ, (people born after 1995), especially in young girls. These mental health issues, Haidt argues, may stem from young people’s hypersensitivity to topics that historically have not generated this kind of response.

“I think there was some danger in him advocating against activism and simply encouraging passivity,” Sam Kottke (’20) said. “If you’re a member of a global [minority living] in America, you’re forcibly exposed to white, American culture, whereas, if you’re a white person, and you’re part of white culture, you’re not going to be forcibly exposed to different cultures. You’re not going to be made to feel uncomfortable about that, and I think that becomes incredibly dangerous, because of this passive attitude about social changes.”

Haidt proposed a variety of solutions to combating the great untruths, including drawing larger circles and focusing on our similarities rather than differences, giving children more independence to explore their environments without a constant safety net around them, and encouraging everyone entering college to learn cognitive-behavioral therapy. Haidt spoke extensively to the concept of anti-fragility of human beings. He argued that we are more resilient than we think and being challenged improves our well-being.

Sharayu Phanse (’22), an international student from India, compared her experience in India to Luther.

“In the second half of his lecture, [Haidt] talked about change and the freedom you should give your children in order to make them strong enough,” Phanse said. “It’s already there in the Indian education system, but the impact of Western education system is leading the [Indian] education system toward taking it from that freedom––going out and becoming stronger––to more academically rigorous systems. That was kind of an ‘a-ha!’ moment for me. He simplified this complicated issue, which is important to realize and understand.”

During the Q&A, Haidt replied to a comment about the risk of labeling, and how once people are assigned a label—by themselves or society—they associate that with their identity. Getting back to the basics is something that Siyabonga Mabuza (’22) found intriguing.

“Once you put a title on something, it gives people an incentive to––in some way––have a problem with [it], and say ‘oh, I’ve experienced this’,” Mabuza said. “What [Haidt’s] basically saying is not that it’s bad to try to identify different problems, but that we should just keep it simple and work toward the important and fundamental aspects––instead of having subsections, which confuse everything, and, in a sense, distort the main focus of what you should try and achieve.”

Ally Peters (’19) captured the general feeling of attendees at the lecture.

“I thought some of his ideas were really interesting and powerful, but I also thought that there were some things I didn’t agree with,” Peters said. “Overall, I was really glad that I was here and heard what he had to say. I think it’s important to hear things that you might not necessarily agree with, just like he was talking about.”

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