What is happening on the college campus? Is it really as bad as the news stories report? What can be done about it? Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have put together a book to help. The title is long enough to make a puritan blush, but it certainly sums up the message of the book: good intentions and bad ideas can do a lot of damage. The book was born out of a 2015 article written for the Atlantic by the same title (You can read it here). This is the second book by Jonathan Haidt I have reviewed. You can read my review of his previous book The Righteous Mind here. As I understand it, both authors are not evangelical Christians nor are they politically conservative. This book is not a screed against the “kids today” and how we just need to get back to the good old days. Haidt is a moral psychologist who works as a professor at NYU. Lukianoff is the president of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) which focuses on defending First Amendment rights in higher education. Both men independently noticed some disturbing trends which led them to co-author their initial article. Afterward, they decided to put their research into a book to delve deeper into the problem and offer solutions. The book is divided into four parts:
Part 1: Three Bad Ideas
The authors explore three key bad ideas which seem to be accepted more and more in society:
1) Kids are incredibly fragile.
2) We should always trust our feelings.
3) Life is a battle between good and evil people.
These ideas are bad because they are false. First, children are anti-fragile. They are not like glass which shatters. Rather they are more like a muscle that gets stronger when tested. This is not to say trauma is acceptable any more than we would say an athlete getting injured is getting stronger. The point is that kids are stronger than we think.
Second, the problem with always trusting our emotions is that we can be easily fooled. We lose the ability to have a healthy confrontation because we stop caring about someone’s intent and only care about their impact on our emotional state.
Third, when we boil relationships down to only a conflict between good and evil people we will not be open to compromise or even listening to the other side. If I think my opponent is basically Hitler then I am not going to reason or persuade him. I am going to fight him.
These three key ideas are being taught and reinforced in our education system, entertainment and social media. The problem with these ideas is not the intent behind them which is protection and the betterment of society. The problem is that these ideas in action make everything worse and actually do the opposite of what they intend: we become more fragile, more angry, more stressed and anxious and so on.
Part 2: Bad Ideas in Action
This section catalogs cases where these bad ideas were put into play. The authors are careful to note that events are not indicative of every college campus. However, they are present in major universities predominantly on the west and east coasts. The authors review some of the riots that occurred in recent years on college campuses as well as the march in Charlottesville. They examine the nature of intimidation and violence that is trending in the news. Then they look at why our society is so prone to witch hunts and the importance of viewpoint diversity.
Part 3: How Did We Get Here?
This section was the most emotionally difficult part of the book for me. The authors dissect how we arrived in this situation focusing upon polarization, anxiety and depression, the decline of play, the rise of safety policies, and the quest for justice. They examine the influences of social media, screens, overprotection, and misguided efforts to achieve social justice. This section is not blasting those who want justice, school administrators, parents or children. The authors are interpreting the data in terms of “six threads” that together help explain how it is we arrived in our present state.
Part 4: Wising Up
Again, the book is not just old men yelling to protect their lawns. The authors present solutions along three lines: families, universities and society. They encourage parents to allow their kids to take calculated risks while resisting the urge to jump in as soon as they struggle. The authors talk about teaching children how to cope with disappointment and pain. They strongly recommend limiting screen time. There are more solutions, but if you want to know them you should read the book!
This book came out at the right time for me as I had just finished reading Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I also watched the news and was actively wrestling with my own use of social media. Normally it takes me less than five minutes to fall asleep at night (apparently I’m overtired). Yet there was one-night last spring (2018) that I couldn’t go to sleep because I was so angry about things someone I didn’t know said on social media. My mind wouldn’t rest as I rolled over what my response would be to this person and how I would show them how wrong they were. I think it was around 1:00 am that I finalized my brilliant rhetorical salvo I would unleash in the morning. However, when I woke up I knew something was wrong with me. I needed to back off social media. Last fall I even deactivated my Facebook account. I didn’t even self-righteously announce it beforehand! The point is that I was primed to read this book.
This book thoughtfully and fairly engages with serious issues in our society which will get worse unless we commit to making serious changes. I appreciate the authors’ desire not to castigate or vilify anyone. They want to make things better. They assume that the people involved in these issues on the campus are acting in good faith. This allows for thoughtful analysis and generous criticism that actually contributes to the conversation. My only criticism is that the final three chapters which present solutions are very short. Perhaps in time, the authors can present how they and some of the groups they point to as good examples are handling these modern challenges. Also, this book cannot give us the reason why we ought to live this way except for the general improvement of society. For Christians, grace and holiness are central for how we interact with others (or at least they should be!). There are core reasons why we are compelled as followers of Christ to live differently than society. As a holy people (set apart by mercy) we do not participate in that which is abhorrent to God. But as people who have been saved by grace, we explain our hope and commitment to Jesus with gentleness, respect, and love. This is not really a criticism. It is an acknowledgment of the limits of a non-Christian book.
I was challenged by this book to consider how I am raising my children particularly in terms of allowing them to take risks and giving them the room to fail. This book also led me to reflect on how I interact with others. I found myself reading this book saying, “Yeah, the Bible says we should do that…” We know it yet we don’t do it. For example: thinking the best of others or at least giving them the benefit of the doubt. Or how about not be hasty with our words in person and especially online? I seem to remember something about taking every thought captive. A good sign to me that this is a good book is that you leave it hopeful that we can do better or at least how I can do better.
The Bottom Line
I said in my review of The Righteous Mind that I would likely recommend this book over that one. That turned out to be true. This book does a wonderful job explaining current trends and what can be done about them. Positively there seem to be reasons for hope that things are changing already on the college campus as detailed here. While this is encouraging, the pressure to unnecessarily self-censor seems to be increasing. This book is well written, engaging and challenging. It is not a Christian book so don’t expect biblical answers or a biblical worldview. I do recommend this book if you are looking for an insightful cultural analysis of the rise of terms like “trigger warning” and “safe space” and the current state of social discourse in America. Overall, an excellent read and well worth your time.
So what do you think about this book? Have a recommendation? Contact me here. Happy reading!