In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt advance an argument against three commonly held assumptions that guide Western cultural discourse today. These are: (1) we are fragile and in need of protection; (2) our feelings must always guide our actions; and (3) we must confront and oppose the enemy without. Rather than creating environments where reason and objectivity prevail for a community, these assumptions have led to a place where political correctness, groupthink, witch hunts, and a culture of grievance dominate. It’s an ugly world, and academia is ground zero. In this course, we have seen these themes developed in the work of Haidt, Taylor, and Noll, among others.
In contrast, Lukianoff and Haidt propose cultivating culture outside our current politicized environment. They argue that:
“Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals… [by] seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that ‘feels unsafe’), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality.”
This book highlights certain themes that are (finally) beginning to resonate within academia as frustration with the current climate is peaking. Psychologist and best-selling author Jordan Peterson from University of Toronto is leading the challenge through his provocative YouTube account and via his recent book 12 Rules for Life which has shaken the academic establishment.
Researcher Howard Doughty reviewed Lukianoff and Haidt’s work, and describes their context more fully:
“Postsecondary education in the United States, they conclude, reveals a set of social arrangements in which victimhood is celebrated. It harbours, in the lexicon of American conservatism, a population of “snowflakes.” Campus culture, they say, promotes a level of infantilism that makes students hypersensitive to insults, causes them to cower in the face of contrary opinions and renders them unable to engage in honest, robust discussions of the great issues of the day.”
While reading, I frequently reflected back on the environment I am helping influence while consulting at our small Maritime university. Even in our setting, in a small and isolated academic context, we are influenced by these general trends. Over the past year, for example, we have discussed and are challenged by situations such as:
- Beginning every public event with an acknowledgement of the land belonging to the original First Nations of the area, in our case, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Passamoquoddy First Nation;
- An advocacy group of students, alumni, and faculty affirming the rights of minority sexualities, and mainstreaming specified usage of language;
- Resistance to power and money as being sourced in white privilege, leading to a discrediting of those voices and yet furthering financial impoverishment of the institution; and
- Realignment of the university board from five men to ten women and two men, all new, in the past year.
It’s not that these struggles are wrong; in fact, the conversation around each of these issues has been fascinating. The beauty of our small institution is that we have chosen to be a community first and valuing the voices of community members is frequently upheld in a variety of ways. Do we make mistakes? You bet we do. But we also try to practice love and listening before judging the other or shutting down different opinions. The reality is that we all live with each other (or in nearby proximity). We study together, we eat together, we cook and clean together, we run into each other at the grocery store or on the walking trail. Being in a small, tight-knit community means we have to learn to live together if we want to succeed as a community. You can’t hide when everyone knows your name. You must confront your disagreements and settle issues face-to-face, even agreeing to disagree, or wither away in isolated bitterness. You can’t give the devil a foothold.
This corporate discernment happens in a number of ways:
- Participating in the school of contemplation, every Wednesday at 12.30, where we sit together for an hour and practice different forms of prayer, from Ignatian imagining to Quaker silence to Taizé singing;
- Community members rotating on offering a weekly ‘fireside chat’ and speaking to their passion and area of interest;
- A generally slow pattern of decision-making, involving much consultation and discussion by all members of the community (I admit this is frustrating to me); and
- Perceiving beauty and the imago Dei in each person, recognizing each one offers gifts to the community no matter their rank or status.
Perhaps the current politicization of our Western culture has occurred because we are detached from one another? We lack community, and we feel adrift. The current cultural dysfunction may come from this need to belong, only it’s manifested in a us-and-them way. Reconnecting with God’s Spirit and with each other in community, where diversity is welcomed and not threatening, is the way I perceive to create a new culture outside this abrasive and challenging framework. By being small and on the margins, I think we are creating a way forward.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Reprint edition (New York: Vintage, 2013).
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
 Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994).
 Greg Lukianoff, and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 14.
 Jordan Peterson website, “12 Rules for Life”, Accessed May 16, 2019, https://www.jordanbpeterson.com/12-rules-for-life/.
 Howard A. Doughty, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure”, The Innovation Journal 23, no. 3 (2018): 2. Accessed on May 16, 2019. https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/docview/2188533327?accountid=11085.