Catching up with ‘Coddling’ part one: Introduction

April 29, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first part of a multi-part series updating developments since the publication of “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure” (2018). See part two here.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in 20 years defending free speech on college campuses, it’s to be a little suspicious when everything seems to be going well. Something is just around the corner.

I felt that way in late 2013. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (my organization, FIRE) legal battle against campus speech codes was undefeated, and unconstitutional speech codes, while still on the books at far too many colleges, were in retreat. We were finally making some headway with the Department of Education’s overbroad and dangerous regulations relating to both free speech and due process; and we were working constructively with many new institutions and organizations as FIRE’s national profile and reputation grew.

But, beginning in the fall of 2013, something changed on campus.

To those of us on the front lines, it was a sudden, jarring, and puzzling shift. Students, who had traditionally been FIRE’s best allies on campus for defending free speech, started vocally demanding new speech codes and for controversial — and sometimes uncontroversial — speakers to be disinvited from speaking on campuses. 

This is when terms like microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces started to become popular, and the demand for greater restrictions on speech were often framed in terms of mental health rather than political odiousness. Speakers critical of feminism, for example, like Wendy McElroy or Christina Hoff Sommers were opposed not simply because of some students’ strong disagreement with their positions, but because their presence on campus was perceived as psychologically damaging.

The sudden spike in medicalized justifications for suppressing campus expression was what led me to talk to my friend, New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt, about a theory I had considered for years.

My premise was this: From a cognitive behavioral therapy perspective, there are ways of thinking that are more likely to make you anxious and depressed (known as cognitive distortions). In dealing with my own depression (which I discuss in some detail in COTAM), I couldn’t help but notice that, on college campuses, the very same cognitive distortions I was trying to fight in myself were being modeled by campus administrators in case after case. “Catastrophizing,” for example, is a classic cognitive distortion that seemed to be everywhere on campus. For one classic example of an “administrators catastrophizing” case that happened before the 2013 arrival of Generation Z on campus, check out one of my all time favorite FIRE cases that combined both free speech and the Sci Fi cult classic Firefly

Prior to 2013, college students seemed to mostly roll their eyes at the exaggerated sense of danger that administrators tried to present to them. But, starting in 2013, students suddenly seemed to accept many rationalizations for why they needed greater repression in order to protect their psychological well-being. But, because these rationalizations rely on cognitive distortions, they can actually INCREASE anxiety and depression, along with intolerance for disagreeable or offensive speech.

Jonathan Haidt and I presented this argument in August 2015 in a cover story for The Atlantic magazine. The article was well received, and it became the second most read cover story in the history of The Atlantic up until that point. And then we solved the problem on campus …

Just kidding. In fact, things were about to get a great deal worse. 

In the following months and years, we saw everything from the famous Nicholas Christakis incident at Yale, the Bret Weinstein blow up at Evergreen State College, violence at Berkeley, Claremont McKenna, and Middlebury College, and an increase in liberal professors being targeted for their beliefs by social media outrage mobs. 

Most distressingly, the modest but noticeable increase in anxiety and depression that we expected to see among young people due, at least in part, to the promotion of cognitive distortions ended up being a huge spike. While Haidt and I thought we were finished with the topic after The Atlantic article, it became increasingly clear we needed to write a follow-up book.

Our book, “The Coddling the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure,” came out in August 2018.

The central premise of the book is that we are giving a generation of young people extraordinarily terrible advice and then being frustrated with them when they follow it. We argue that we are unintentionally teaching a generation of students three “great untruths.” They are: 

The great untruth of fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

The great untruth of emotional reasoning: Your feelings are always right.

The great untruth of us versus them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

Ultimately, the book is a social science detective story. We try to figure out what was so different about those students who began hitting campuses around 2013 that led to an increased intolerance for speech and drastically worse mental health outcomes. 

We discovered that these students were part of a new generation, Generation Z, that are in many ways dramatically different from Millennials. Indeed, the discontinuity in traits between people born before 1995 and after are much sharper than you usually see in generational shifts. In characteristics ranging from their attitudes about both physical and emotional safety, to when they hit lifetime milestones like driving a car or having sex for the first time, to a hollowing out of the politically moderate in favor of greater polarization, Generation Z is strikingly different. 

As we did our research, one contributing factor became very clear: This was the first generation of young people to grow up with smartphones in their pockets from an early age and to be plugged into social media. We argue this affected two things dramatically: mental health and political polarization. These were our first two “causal threads.”

But we knew this couldn’t possibly be the whole story and we uncovered four more causal threads. The next two threads related to changes in parenting for the kinds of students who attended elite universities: “Paranoid parenting” and the decline of free time and free play among children.

The final question we had was, “Why did this all seem so much more intense on campus?” This led us to our final two causal threads: The transformation of colleges into highly bureaucratized administrative institutions and the rise of new ideas of social justice.

The book clearly touched a nerve. It spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and has sold well over a quarter million copies worldwide. The interest around all of the issues we touched remains intense, so as we approach five years since our original article was published (August 2015) and two years since our book was published (August 2018), it’s time to look at what we have learned since then.

The structure of this blog series

Over the next few months we will look at the six aforementioned causal threads one at a time and explore what new things we’ve discovered since the publication of the book in 2018. Spoiler: Unfortunately, a lot of the negative trends, including rising levels of anxiety and depression, have gotten decidedly worse. However, there will be some pleasant surprises, including new research into “over accommodating” parents, and some success for the movement to let kids out to range at least a little bit freer.

Next up: In Catching up with ‘Coddling’ part two, we will look into the trends in mental health among children and young folk since we published COTAM.