- The Good: An opinion piece that probably works better as an essay
- The Bad: Extremely narrow-minded, over-generalized, and repetitive subject matter
- The Literary: Some graphs that loosely correlate (not causate) their arguments
Kids today are taught a rigid culture of safety that does not allow for opposing viewpoints to be open for discussion. The triggers that cause uncomfortable feelings have been removed kids’ lives, which has led to a new generation unprepared for adult life.
First off, the title of the book suggests that all of the American mind is coddled, when, in fact, only a very small subset of the population falls into this category. Specifically, upper middle-class kids entering college starting in the the year 2013. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that this very specific micro-generation has been taught Three Great Untruths. First, their feelings are always right; second, they should avoid discomfort; and third, they should look for moral faults in others.
Said another way, children born into traditional families with money after 1995 were thought of as fragile creatures who must be protected by adults and always under supervision. The arguments that the authors posit are easy to agree with. Feelings are not necessarily true, the world is not only good and evil, and adversity does not make you weak. Children should play with other children, be taught independence, and should probably limit their social media time.
These primary points make for good, albeit obvious, arguments for an opinion piece. I assume the essay from which the book is expanded was fine, but there’s not enough for a full-length book here. The repetition makes for dull reading. The basis of the Great Untruths are exemplified by a very small number of people doing a very small number of things. Most of the evidence is anecdotal. In the conclusion, the authors admit that most kids aren’t fragile and don’t express these characteristics, and, paired with the few extreme cases featured, make me wonder if the entire book is making too much out of nothing.
There are certainly larger trends at work here. Each generation has the opportunity to reject the ideas of their parents and remake the world in their image. And with significant differences in technology over such short periods of time, it’s no wonder kids behave a little differently today. But there is no shortage here of Lukianoff and Haidt reminiscing a lot about the good ol’ days and shaking their authorial fists at the ways kids are doing it now.
Reading this book, you might be persuaded into thinking that liberal snowflakes are rioting across all college campuses right now. In reality, there are a lot of young people who are angry, ready to be recognized for who they are, who want to fight for equality. Some extreme cases are widely circulated in the media. So are kids angry about nothing? The authors validate and acknowledge the need for further equality, but with the caveat kids are doing it all wrong. How should the kids protest and fight for what they believe? As long as they stop feeling so offended all the time, I don’t think the authors care.
I would argue that the passion of the youth has always been the seed for social change, and just because Lukianoff and Haidt want college educated students to be more reasonable doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Wasn’t it the their generations’ motto to “not trust anyone over 30?” Have teenagers and young adults ever been fully rational or logical in their causes?
The authors sure have a lot to say about call-out culture (including a thinly veiled disdain of feminists), but they walk a careful line of trying to be moderate so as not to offend anyone. They call out several kids who made unreasonable demands, but fail to place blame on colleges and administrators. In fact, they spend chapters upon chapters crafting their arguments only to conclude, “You can see why it was hard for us to make a strong case that universities were causing students to become anxious and depressed by teaching them disordered ways of thinking. Anxiety and depression rates were already rising for all teenagers before they arrived at college, and for those who never attended college as well. Clearly universities were not causing a national mental health crisis; they were responding to one.”
So it must be the parents, right? Safetyism might be a factor in kids being more fearful, which might be a factor in them being depressed. But then Lukianoff and Haidt also admit that, “Putting it all together, from 1960 to 1990, there was a 48% reduction in deaths from unintended injuries and accidents among kids between five and fourteen years of age, and a 57% drop in deaths of younger kids (ages one to four).” It’s unfortunate that the authors have no direct evidence.
The chapters at the end of the book that are supposed to tell the reader how to fix this mess, but the suggestions are vague, like saying colleges should favor acceptance of students who take a gap year. Who has control over that, I ask? Or that you should have your small child wear a tag around their neck (similar to the WWII student identification tags) while playing in the neighborhood that directs readers to the the authors’ website. (I guess Lukianoff and Haidt can’t pass up a marketing opportunity.)
The latter part of the book is also a love-letter to cognitive behavioural therapy, which feels quite out of place, like it was a suggestion from an editor to pad out the length. I find it interesting that Lukianoff and Haidt call out the rising rates of depression and anxiety, which probably are a result of increased openness about mental health, also explain in depth that kids are too aware of their feelings these days, and then have the audacity to suggest literally the most common and best-studied form of psychotherapy for the last fifty years as if it was a new topic.
If you are interested in social science, I’d recommend Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion instead.