Peanuts, CBT and Martin Luther King image

Peanuts, CBT and Martin Luther King

The only bad thing about Greg Lukianoff and Jon Haidt's new book is the title: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. It is everything the book is not—wordy, gloomy, patronising, and with a distinctive aroma of that airport bookshop apocalypticism that so often characterises American culture war publishing—and I've suggested an alternative above. Once you turn the front page, however, you find yourself in a book of insight, nuance and analysis, clarity of argument and fluency of prose, rigour and readability. If you've read Haidt's The Righteous Mind, or come across the work of the Heterodox Academy, you won't need much convincing.

Three Great Untruths have permeated American education in the last few years, and between them they are responsible for a lot of the recent developments on campuses that seem so bizarre to onlookers: safetyism, no platforming, call-out culture, trigger warnings, shoutdowns, intimidations, microaggressions, safe spaces and the rest. Each flies in the face of ancient wisdom and modern psychological research, and is demonstrably harmful to the individuals and communities which believe them:

1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
2. Always trust your feelings.
3. Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

These three untruths have gone from being obviously wrong to widely accepted in a fairly short space of time—the period from 2013-17 seeing a particularly rapid shift—and it cannot all be Donald Trump’s fault (though his election has undoubtedly exacerbated it). There are, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, six related factors that have come together at once, which account for much of the change (emphasis added):

We identify six explanatory threads: the rising political polarisation and cross-party animosity of US politics, which has led to rising hate crimes and harassment on campus; rising levels of teen anxiety and depression, which have made many students more desirous of protection and more receptive to the Great Untruths; changes in parenting practices, which have amplified children’s fears even as childhood becomes increasingly safe; the loss of free play and unsupervised risk-taking, both of which kids need to become self-governing adults; the growth of campus bureaucracy and expansion of its protective mission; and an increasing passion for justice, combined with changing ideas about what justice requires.

As a result of these factors the Great Untruths are now widespread, even self-evident in some circles, but they remain untrue. It all comes down to peanuts, CBT, and Martin Luther King.

Peanuts. You would think that the best way to stop children developing peanut allergies is to stop them from getting anywhere near peanuts. It isn’t. In fact, research shows that peanut allergies are significantly increased when you keep peanuts away from children; if we are not exposed to a potential threat at all, we never learn how to cope with it (which is partly why allergies are on the rise pretty much everywhere in the developed world). And the reason for that, to borrow from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is that children are neither fragile (easily broken) nor resilient (able to withstand shocks), but antifragile: like muscles, and bones, we need stresses and challenges in order to learn, adapt and grow. Consequently, though we might think that the best way of building healthy students was to protect them from things which might upset them, the opposite is closer to the truth.

CBT. Trusting your feelings, come what may, is a terrible idea. In fact, the principle behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is that we need to question our feelings, examine counterevidence, and form habits which enable us to foster different, more helpful beliefs than the ones towards which we may instinctively gravitate. That’s why CBT works: it recognises that we are all prone to cognitive distortions, and helps us establish thought patterns that fight back. (One such tool they mention is the CARE model: Conscious empathy, Active listening, Responsible reaction, Environmental awareness.) I am not responsible for what happens to me, but I am responsible for the way I respond to it. So if I am offended by a lecture, a speaker or an idea, my education and mental health will likely be better served by challenging that feeling than by embracing it.

Martin Luther King. There are two kinds of identity politics, and one is good, and the other is bad. The good kind is common humanity identity politics, whereby (like Dr King) you make the case that some of your fellow humans are being denied dignity and rights because they belong to a particular group, and that this needs to change on the basis of our shared humanity. (The classic statement of this is from Pauli Murray: “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them.”) The bad kind is common enemy identity politics, in which a group is united by identifying and opposing an outgroup: Jews, Communists, black people, white people, gays, liberals, conservatives, or whomever. Both types exist, on campus and in society as a whole, but recent years have seen a significant shift from the former to the latter.

As with Jon Haidt’s previous book, one of the many things that struck me while reading it is how very Christian—and, more specifically, how very Pauline—many of these insights are. Peanuts: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character produces hope.” CBT: “do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Martin Luther King: “here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” Whether that is because they are standard examples of ancient wisdom which many of our contemporaries are forgetting, or because Paul’s thought has so shaped our culture that we echo him without realising it, or simply because common grace is a wonderful gift, I am not sure; I suspect it is a bit of all three. But wherever it comes from, Lukianoff and Haidt have served parents, students, teachers, adults and children with the wisdom in this book. I hope it gets a wide audience.

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