Human history seems to reveal a constant motion, a swinging pendulum regarding many subjects. There is a propensity when people are concerned about something to move the opposite direction to correct it. Unfortunately, we often move too far the other way and end up with a similar problem on the opposite side. This metaphor came to mind while reading Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure. Greg Lukianoff is the CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Jonathan Haidt is a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
The authors’ basic premise is there are three bad ideas that are untruths influencing the minds of college students. Their concern seems mostly about the future of our nation, particularly in the area of politics, when these students become the leaders of society casting their ballots in elections. I would like to address what I see as a pendulum swing in each of their ideas.
- The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker
The authors propose that a “concept creep” about safety has swept across college campuses causing conversations to shift from what may feel uncomfortable to being described as dangerous to the minds of students. They cite several examples of speech that is now considered harmful and being censored.
While we may have all experienced this extreme as the authors describe, we must also take an honest assessment as to what initiated this move in the first place. These students represent a generation simply undone by the discrimination and outright hatred toward people groups and are standing up to say, “enough.” There is a pendulum swing, but maybe it is needed to move us toward stewarding our voice more appropriately.
I will balance this by saying, I agree with the authors that over protection can actually do harm just as they describe with immune systems. A failure for young people to experience consequences, difficulties, and pain can actually cripple them in the real world and they need to learn how to have hard conversations without being harmed by it. Yet, as the pendulum swings, isn’t it possible to experience both/and? Can we stop using “freedom of speech” as a weapon to launch our opinions and be more empathetic and accountable with our words? And, at the same time, recognize we live in a broken world and we need to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” with skin as tough as a rhino which comes from enduring hardship in a healthy manner. This must be taught to our young as well. The pendulum needs to keep swinging.
- The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Feelings
With this untruth the authors emphasize CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to address what Haidt describes in his book The Righteous Mind as training the elephant, our emotions, by the rider, our reason. Their premise is that CBT is the therapeutic process of changing the patterns of thinking rather than living by what one feels. Their main concern with this myth of trusting one’s feelings is that in an age where reason and critical thinking are necessary to deal with the problems of our society this young generation must be equipped for future decision making.
Once again, the pendulum comes into play. Since the Enlightenment, reason has been considered the ruler of the day even in the Church. Emotions have been treated as if they are inherently evil and must be controlled if not completely locked away. As a result, we have generations of people who were not honest with God, themselves, or those they love and often to their own demise. This is a profound problem in leadership as we see the dark side emerge when the pressure is on.
Could it be that this is a generation who has watched their parents and grandparents live emotionally closed are asking for healthy expression and holistic truth? The pendulum needs to keep swinging.
- The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People
The authors’ concept of the evolution of tribalism in humanity is their basis for this untruth. They describe this as “our endowment for banding together to prepare for intergroup conflict.” Robert Keegan describes this as a socialized mind which is stage three in his adult development theory. In this stage our validation and sense of self is derived from external sources. Keegan states 58% of the population remains in this stage which confirms why tribalism and group think are dominant.
The rugged individualism, particularly in America, could use a pendulum swing into a bit more group identity. On the other hand, the swing to groupthink toward a destructive end needs a self-transforming mind to influence the group when it moves toward extremism. The pendulum needs to keep swinging.
I use this metaphor to say there must always be an ebb and flow of ideas as humanity progresses. May the pendulum keep swinging for the sake of wisdom and not allow extremism to become the norm.
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), 19.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 21.
 Matthew 10:16b NET
 Lukianoff and Haidt, 33.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012), 53.
 Lukianoff and Haidt, 53.
 Ibid., 58.
 Robert Keegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2009), Kindle Loc. 446.
 Ibid., Kindle Loc. 481.