Free Minds & Free Markets


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The Coddling of the American Mind, Campuses, and the Law

Campus mental health, freedom of speech, and government policy.

A huge thanks to Eugene for inviting us to write about Greg's latest book this week. The book is The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, which Greg co-authored with social psychologist and NYU Stern School of Business professor Jonathan Haidt. Adam is an attorney who joined FIRE in 2016 after 13 years at the Student Press Law Center; he helped extensively with research in the last several months of the book. The last time Greg guest blogged at the Volokh Conspiracy was in 2012 after the release of his first book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. Six years later it feels like we're living in an entirely different world both on- and off-campus.

The book is not primarily about legal issues or the law. And while freedom of speech issues come up often, it is not primarily a book about freedom of speech on campus, either. It is, rather, a social science detective story to get to the bottom of why we have seen so many disturbing trends on campus over the last five years, particularly a rapid and steep decline in mental health among students on campus over the past several year. The percentage of college students who described themselves as having a mental disorder nearly tripled between 2012 and 2016. Fifty percent attended counseling for mental health concerns, and a third seriously considered suicide. Meanwhile, campus counseling centers are struggling to keep up; between 2009 and 2015, demand for their services increased five times faster than enrollment.

But as we explain in the book, the trends are related:

In years past, administrators were motivated to create campus speech codes in order to curtail what they deemed to be racist or sexist speech. Increasingly, however, the rationale for speech codes and speaker disinvitations was becoming medicalized: Students claimed that certain kinds of speech—and even the content of some books and courses—interfered with their ability to function. They wanted protection from material that they believed could jeopardize their mental health by "triggering" them, or making them "feel unsafe." [...] What is new today is the premise that students are fragile. Even those who are not fragile themselves often believe that others are in danger and therefore need protection.

We identify six causal threads to try to explain why this seemingly quite sudden change occurred around the school year of 2013–14: paranoid parenting (which Haidt wrote about here), the decline of free play (probably the most novel argument in the book, which Haidt and Greg wrote about in The New York Times), increased political polarization, social media (as Jean Twenge emphasizes in iGen), corporatization and bureaucratization of universities (particularly their concern with compliance with federal law and avoiding legal liability), and, of course, the resurgence of the new and divisive form of identity politics.

For a quick overview of many of the themes of the book, check out this interview with Greg and Jonathan Haidt on CBS news or read the accompanying article. For much more in depth discussion of the themes of this book, check out Nick Gillespie's interview with Greg and Jon for Reason:

This week, we'll discuss four topics more closely related to the regular content of a legal blog: the history of modern campus speech codes, the current case that could lead to a resurgence in speech codes, the intersection of Title IX and harassment law and how it affects campus speech codes, and thoughts on how we improve the environment for free speech on campus.

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  • Ian99||

    You say, "The percentage of college students who described themselves as having a mental disorder nearly tripled between 2012 and 2016. Fifty percent attended counseling for mental health concerns, and a third seriously considered suicide." Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe these numbers refer not to all college students, but just to those who went to some form of counseling. Specifically, the document you link to says, in bold type, "This report describes college students receiving mental health services, NOT the general college student population." Am I perhaps misunderstanding the document or your quote? If it is just the population receiving mental health services, the number considering suicide or having a mental disorder seems much less surprising.

  • Sarcastr0||

    I've often argued that while the anecdotes here are all bad and shouldn't be ignored, where are the stats?

    I'm interested in seeing what turns up as these posts continue. So far, I agree that there has been nothing too inspiring, and nothing to prove causality other than speculation.

    But I'm hopeful; these guys seem serious, not pure propagandists. Believe it or not, this is something I argue about on liberal message boards, so ammo is appreciated.

  • librarian||

    You won't like this one bit, but I'll second that.

  • Adam Goldstein||

    You're absolutely right, and that's on me--I didn't do a great job putting that into context. The numbers for overall students aren't that encouraging, though. Check out p. 35 of the index to Twenge's 2017 book iGen: http://d1hbl61hovme3a.cloudfro.....pendix.pdf

    "Between 2011 and 2016, 30% more intentionally injured themselves, and 43% more seriously considered suicide." According to that chart, the overall numbers went from 7% to about 11% seriously considering suicide in five years.

  • Adam Goldstein||

    Er, Appendix, not index. Clearly I need to finish this coffee and think about what I've done.

  • Ian99||

    Thanks for pointing to the other source. It's definitely interesting. How does it fit with your hypothesis that the upward trend among college students seems to run in parallel with a trend in high school students?

    Separately from that, though, the top figure on page 35 seems to suggest that the 2010-2011 period was a temporary dip, and if one compares the early 2000's to 2015 it doesn't seem as though much has changed, at least for high school students.

  • Doug Huffman||

    Coddling of the American Mind brings to mind coddled eggs and how one boils a frog. A prog is boiled by turning up the heat slowly, so that it is not obvious until too late - when the prog's mind is coddled.

    The Alt-Right is screaming at the prog frogs, but it will soon be too late for all of US Bitter Clingers.

  • Michael Masinter||

    I write in defense of frogs, creatures that, contrary to urban legends, are exquisitely sensitive to small changes in temperature and that will jump out of slowly heated water as soon as the temperature starts to rise. See the many columns of James Fallows beginning with his 2006 piece, "The boiled-frog myth: stop the lying now!"

  • FlameCCT||

    The Coddling of the American Mind, Campuses, and the Law.

    Excellent choice of word, coddling, instead of the more common, pussification.

    This article seems to fit well with the David Bernstein article, A Mathematics Paper Two Math Journals Were Mau-Maued into Suppressing: Academic discourse is increasingly under threat from activist professors.

  • Sarcastr0||

    I didn't much like that story because it was so one sided (and a skim of the the comments looks like there was some alt-right/neoreactionary weirdness).

    One of the horrifarious things about these campus speech imbroglios is that the other side does speak...and manages to dig themselves further.

  • FlameCCT||

    The Bernstein story reminds me of how the AGW crowd worked very hard to spike any opposition research being published instead of actually using science and scientific method to argue and/or prove false.

  • Sarcastr0||

    The problem with this technical academic stuff is that neither you nor I can distinguish between spiking a legit study, debunking an incorrect study, or simply petty academic infighting.

  • Mal-2||

    Video clips that autoplay when loading the page (like that CBS News clip) are terribly annoying.

  • Eugene Volokh||

    Whoops, sorry, just changed that to just a normal link.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Wait a minute. Why is the coddling critique limited to notional nonsense from leftists? By all means, disabuse leftists of their sillier notions. But why stop there?

    What about libertarians who suppose you can have a limited government, while opposing the very notion of sovereignty? What about capitalist theorists, who assert they can demonstrate—with economic axioms and economic reasoning—which political choices national leaders should make? What about folks who imagine the Civil War and civil rights legislation was unnecessary, because market economics would have done for slavery and Jim Crow even quicker? What about people persuaded to believe history proves the 2A was all about arms for personal self-defense?

    There isn't anything in any of that which is remotely susceptible to proof. In fact—and in general—it's all either false as a matter of fact, or demonstrably erroneously reasoned. But there is a pretty extensive right-wing advocacy machine trying to persuade folks it's all true and reliable.

    And plenty of right-wingers fall for that stuff, and espouse it as true-believing zealots, right on this very web site. Intellectually, there isn't notable substantive difference between errors of that sort, and the ones which allegedly afflict college campuses.

    So stop coddling twaddle, on the left, and on the right. Why the one-sided approach?

  • Sarcastr0||

    Yeah, this ignores anyone who isn't liberal. We can figure that out going in.

    But partisanship on the authors' part doesn't let liberals off the hook.

    ...If they prove their case. It's a convenient narrative, I just hope it isn't too good to check.

  • D-Pizzle||

    "What about libertarians who suppose you can have a limited government, while opposing the very notion of sovereignty? What about capitalist theorists, who assert they can demonstrate—with economic axioms and economic reasoning—which political choices national leaders should make? What about folks who imagine the Civil War and civil rights legislation was unnecessary, because market economics would have done for slavery and Jim Crow even quicker? What about people persuaded to believe history proves the 2A was all about arms for personal self-defense?"

    What does any of this have to do with the topic of the book? You just seem to be aggregating some of your gripes with the right in general and libertarians specifically (i.e. the topics that "trigger" you).

  • David Welker||

    The problem with the book is the title.

    Massive overgeneralization much?

    Maybe the book still has great content despite its ridiculous hyperbolic title. Doesn't matter. I am not going to read it. I am not going to reward hype.

    Everyone wants to be the next Alex Jones or Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. Exaggeration sells. So why not create a career out of freaking other people out?

    I deplore THIS modern trend. And this book, with its ridiculous title, is part of the problem. Calling people who disagree with you coddled little snowflakes may feel good. It may even be true in some cases. But it fails to engage seriously.

    Don't judge a book by its cover? Sure. I agree with that. But I think it is fair to judge it by its title. The authors here have chosen a title to market to modern insecurities. Which is ironic, because the summary suggests that it is the college students who are overly fragile. I would suggest that it those who are attracted to the hyperbolic title may have their own psychological vulnerabilities. The sky is not falling today, just as it wasn't yesterday.

    I do not mean to be so harsh towards this particular book or it's authors. But their choice of title is a pretty big mistake, in my view.

  • Ed Grinberg||

    re: "Calling people who disagree with you coddled little snowflakes..."
    The coddled little snowflakes don't just disagree; they feel they're entitled to have any opposing viewpoints shut down. That's the point.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    That's the point . . . on conservative-controlled campuses. Not so much on our stronger campuses, which are operating in our great liberal-libertarian tradition.

  • KoaxKoax||

    I would agree that the title is fairly inflammatory. They do address this in the book; the authors intended a different title but an editor at the Atlantic came up with the one they ended up going with. They also included a review from some academic in the book's foreward that said she "lamented" the title of the book but otherwise recommended it.

    Quite frankly, if they would have gone with the original title, nobody would have ended up reading it.

  • MarkW201||

    I have not yet read the Haidt/Lukianoff book. One thing I would hope the authors have done is present solid, systematic evidence of the trends they are describing. We all know how easy it is to give the impression of a frightening "trend" by collecting and describing a small set of scary anecdotes. In fact, the Haidt and Skenazy piece on "paranoid parenting," linked to in this post, is largely a collection of anecdotes. I hope that Haidt and Lukianoff have remembered, in writing their book, that the plural form of anecdote is not "data."

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    The headline and book title indicate that this work examines -- if not focuses on -- conservative-controlled campuses and the censorship, loyalty oaths, conduct codes, teaching of nonsense, suppression of science, low reputation, prohibition of dissent, rejection of academic freedom, and viewpoint-based discrimination that are the traditional, signature elements of a campus operated by conservatives.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    What's funny about hicklibs is how consistently wrong they are about everything.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Conservatives, when they get control of a campus, will continue to give us the Biolas, Wheatons, Hillsdales, Franciscans, Regents, Libertys, and Oral Roberts of our academic world.

    Liberals, libertarians, and moderates will continue to operate Berkeley, Harvard, Michigan, Reed, Columbia, and New York University.

    The results will continue to be predictable.

  • perlchpr||

    Enh. I'm not in college any more, and I think the world is a shittier place than it was 30 years ago. I figure it's pretty reasonable for the kids to be depressed.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    You keep pining for good old days (that never existed). Your betters will continue to forge American progress.

  • perlchpr||

    Yes, Kirkland. You don't have to tell me how thrilled you are. I already know that pigs thrive in shit.

  • perlchpr||

    Goddamn, you really are just a shit gargling cum dumpster fire of a human being.

    Kids getting ready to go to college in the fall have grown up in a country that has been at war their entire lives. The price of that college is vastly higher than it was 20, 30 years ago, likely locking many of those kids into a lifetime of debt. I could go on, but you're likely just going to let any sort of input bounce off your sneer.

    Tell me more about this "progress" you're so fucking proud of.


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