Are We Really "Setting up a Generation for Failure"?

May 09, 2019

With The Coddling of the American Mind, authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff offer a sobering diagnosis of the state of our universities, arguing that the best of intentions have led to severe consequences for many of today’s young adults. Since the subtitle of the book is “How Good Intentions Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” it’s worth asking: Are the authors simply exaggerating the case to sell books? Is this just clickbait? Tune in to hear Nathan and Cameron discuss this provocative new title.

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Nathan Rittenhouse: Hello and welcome to Thinking Out Loud, and Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your cohost Nathan Rittenhouse.

Cameron McAllister: And I'm your cohost, Cameron McAllister.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Cameron, lots of interesting ideas floating around in the world and some of those kind of surface into clusters and clumps, so to speak, where we can kind of deal with a lot of ideas by looking at kind of the category of the idea. And one of the thinkers that's a New York Times Bestseller, well-known, yeah, I guess we can say celebrity academic-

Cameron McAllister: Oh for sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ...that's come along in recent times is Jonathan Haidt, and we've referenced him on multiple things and other times. Some of you will know him from his books, “The Righteous Mind” or “The Happiness Hypothesis.” And then a well-known article in the Atlantic, it's over a year ago I think, called “The Coddling of the American Mind” that sort of went viral, and then that spun off into an entire book by the same title. And so could you kind of give us a little bit of an insight, you've just finished reading it. You've been doing some speaking off of the themes from that article in his books and why it's a timely message for us.

Cameron McAllister: For sure. Yeah, I've been drawing on the book a little bit and I know many, many listeners have probably read it at this point as well. And it's co-written with a gentleman named Greg Lukianoff, and Greg Lukianoff is a lawyer and he works a lot with issues relating to free speech. He works a lot on college campuses. So both Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are on campuses and have lots of access to campus culture, which is where they're initially drawing their thought from.

The article appeared and it just gained...I mean it went viral quite quickly and so they decided to turn this into book length. But essentially what they're arguing in the book, they say three really bad ideas are circulating on college campuses, particularly elite universities. Jonathan Haidt, for instance, teaches at New York University. He was formerly-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Previously at UVA.

Cameron McAllister: ...UVA and now he's at New York University.

I think once I name these, I think you're going to see that they're not just limited to universities at this point, but the three ideas are these. Number one, what hurts you makes you weaker. So that's the opposite of what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. So what hurts you, makes you weaker. Number two, feelings are an accurate indication of reality. So you can trust your feelings. And finally, number three, life is a battle between good people and bad people. Or, life is a battle between good people and evil people.

So those are the three ideas. What hurts you, makes you weaker; your feelings are trustworthy-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Accurate.

Cameron McAllister: ...reliable, accurate; and finally, life's a battle between good people and evil people. And they argue that all three of these are well-intentioned, but they are basically contributing to a very, very fragile mindset, particularly in younger people, particularly in students.

And they say that if you look to these three mindsets, you can explain a lot of the increasingly very, very strong behavior from students' reactions, especially when it comes to disagreements, protests, and also a really kind of growing anxiety about any kind of adversity, any kind of disagreement, any kind of pushback.

They talk about the word trauma being vastly overused now. Where trauma used to use to indicate only severe physical injury and then it was expanded in light of PTSD to include severe, extreme emotional trauma. But now increasingly, it's being used in a very, very broad sense to where if something in the writings of Ovid, for instance, offends you or triggers you, you can call that trauma. So lots to think about there.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, and I think another example that you would see, what was the...Well, Jordan Peterson had his invitation to guest lecture at Cambridge rescinded because the student body said "His views don't match our views."

Cameron McAllister: Yes.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And so that's that question of like, "Well, is that the role of the professor to validate the views of the student or do you want diversity of ideas?"

Cameron McAllister: Do you want diversity of ideas? You want to challenge that? Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: The other reason that I think some of this went viral, so to speak, ideologically, is that he's not writing from a conservative viewpoint.

Cameron McAllister: Not at all.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. So he would say I'm secular, atheist, liberal Jew. His Heterodox Academy is sort of a high-end academic backlash to some of this. And so it's really speaking to maybe an audience who's like, "I told you so." But then also to just, here's what the facts show about a lot of the implications of where this type of thinking leads us.

And he's not doing it from a high horse, heavy-handed. He's saying, "This is actually bad for you if you believe these things." And so there's a compassionate element here to the message of saying, "Look, if you're going to embrace these ideas, which are very popular, this is not ultimately good, not just for free speech, for the Academy, it's not good for you."

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, it's not good for you. I mean, he puts a lot of emphasis on the last one on, life is a battle between good people and evil people. And he points to some of the really, potentially catastrophic consequences of that line of thinking because he says... And this is, this is the element I draw on most often when I'm giving talks, because he says, "Look, if you think life is a battle between good people and evil people... "

And by the way, now that you've heard these three kind of conceptions or these three harmful ideas, look for them. You're going to see them popping up over and over again in your newsfeed. You're going to see them all over social media. You're going to see them all over newspaper stories. But here's what he...If you think that, he points out, the ends can justify the means.

Because you're not just going against people who have potentially misguided views, these people are evil and dangerous, and you're going to hear that word actually being used a lot. It's been a long time, Nathan, I think this is maybe a whole separate conversation, since we've had this much heavily moral, self-righteous language in the secular sphere. I mean, the word evil, for instance, the word evil is fiercely resisted for years, especially in psychologic...And by the way, Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist. But in the psychological literature, the word evil would be seen as very, "Oh my goodness, how archaic, how passé."

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, but we've recently cut the chains and let that one come back up from the basement.

Cameron McAllister: Oh, It is everywhere, especially in political rhetoric. These people are evil. This outlook is evil, ladies and gentlemen. And so the ends justify the means. Now you're fighting evil, people, and you can go as far as you want. And many of the students who were interviewed were, who have actually provided some insights into their motivations behind actually attacking speakers, causing real physical injury, and they highlight some of these stories in the book. They will actually say, "Well, this person is evil." They're very presence on campus is harmful, even if they're not disseminating their views.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So, yeah, I was at a university last year and I knew there was a certain constituency there that wouldn't be happy with me, and they came and we had some frank conversations, let's say afterward. But it was fascinating, I was there to speak on the relationship between faith and science. They had a lot of questions about Christian views of sexual ethics. And their conclusion was is that you should not be allowed to speak on this campus, on faith, in science because of your views on sexual ethics. I was like, "Well, that's fascinating because I actually didn't say anything about that in my talk, but close enough."

Cameron McAllister: You didn't have to.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So I don't have anything valuable to say at all in any other type of category because I didn't agree with their view of biology. So it's that kind of a categorical...It's not that there's something wrong with the person in one category, the entirety of that person, and so we're back to a Machiavellian...Yeah.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. It's pretty interesting because especially they're going to point out frequently...And once again, we can't stress enough that neither one of these guys, Greg Lukianoff is quite politically progressive. Jonathon Haidt describes himself as a little bit more of a moderate liberal. Jonathon Haidt, for instance, is a, is a thoroughgoing scientific naturalist by the way. So they are not coming at this from a religious perspective, and politically, they're basically there on the side of many of the highly progressive schools of shop that are kind of promulgating this line of thinking in the first place.

But they both point to the absolute necessity for ideological diversity on university campuses. And they kind of break down the numbers and they look at, for instance, how there are so few conservative thinkers on Ivy League or really elite institutions, and they point out this is really bad. We need that diversity, well because we need to balance each other out. Because if you don't have the balance, guess what? Not very surprisingly, it tends to lead to group think and it tends to lead to very sort of ironclad ideology, and ideology punishes is dissenting views. It rewards loyalty. It doesn't tolerate humor.

We've talked a little bit about the dangers of humor because it tends to take us sort of a more meta view and pokes fun and is the irreverent, and so they say that this is bad. It's bad for democracy and it's bad, but I think we as Christians can also say it's spiritually dangerous to try to put anybody in a category of evil people over there and us, righteous, right side of history, good folks over here. It's deeply ingrained in us to naturally want to do that. It's a very, it's a huge temptation, but it leads to a kind of very dangerous pride and I think most of us can recognize if-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Jesus should have told a parable that illustrates this book, as like I'm not like that guy.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. If only we had some sort of spiritual illustration to point to, to help us elaborate on this principle. But yeah, right. Increasingly, I've said before, when I'm on social media and I'm including myself here, I'm not saying that I would be falling victim to the very mindset if I said, "Here's what I see everybody else doing." No, but increasingly, I think about the person who says in the parable who says, "Thank God, I am not like other men. I'm not like this wicked guy over here. I fast regularly. I give tithes." But that essentially is so much of the virtue signaling that you see online and all that, it's a variation on the phrase, "Thank God I'm not like these people over there."

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Hmm. So as far as kind of thinking back through these categories then, and one of, I think, the implications and the outcomes of this to watch for is that is becoming more and more of the... Or shouldn't be more and more of a uniquely Christian perspective to say that, "I don't believe what you do, but I value you." That's becoming a rare category of, can I disagree without disrespecting? Can I say that your life has a sanctity to it while not agreeing that your ideas are all sacred? That for me is one of the more dangerous parts of this good/evil distinction is that we've lost the ability to respectfully disagree. And so we say, "Well, that person believes this, therefore their life isn't worth... "

And I think from some of the stories of our colleagues in the Middle East, they run into this line of thinking very often of, "I'm doing a service to humanity by eliminating you because you believe the wrong thing."

Cameron McAllister: Right.

Nathan Rittenhouse: This isn't like, oh, the sky is falling. It's just to say that there are some logical consequences that we can see played out in other parts of the world when we run this to its logical conclusion. Unfortunately, a lot of that's been done for religious reasons, historically. It's the same footprint in the snow as it were that points in that direction.

Cameron McAllister: And it's increasingly a line of thinking that's becoming more dominant here in the West and most people are acknowledging that, I mean, just across the spectrum. I was reading some news articles recently about the UK and the sort of the Brexit aftermath and the political fiasco that that has been for the public. And again, many, many voices are saying there is no room for people in the middle anymore. There's this increasing sense in which you are either all in on this side or you're all in on this side, or you're a person of no principles. You're a person with no spine. You're not really committed. You don't care. You're not invested.

But increasingly, I mean, it's interesting to step away from the political aspects of that for a second, to get away from the political moderates discussion. I keep thinking more and more as a Christian apologist, and particularly as a Christian apologist who focuses on the cultural arena so cultural apologetics. In many ways, my favorite definition of cultural apologetics is just simply, cultural apologetics is really just a Christian taking, looking at the city of man or the culture of man from an eternal perspective, and seeing that in the end, it's important to be invested. Social programs, political programs, cultural programs, movements and all of that, they matter because we care deeply about this world.

But on the other hand there's a kind of blessed ambivalence that enters in and I'm borrowing that phrase from-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Oh, I like that line.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I'm borrowing that phrase from James K.A. Smith. I'm aware we're not talking about him this time, but he had a book that came out recently. It was the completion of the cultural liturgy series and it's called “Awaiting the King” and, that's his political sort of reading of the Augustinian view of man as primarily defined by what he or she loves.

So if Christian men and women are people awaiting the King, and if our ultimate outlook is that this world matters, but it is passing away, then you have all the tools you need to be invested to care, but not to succumb to despair when things don't turn out well. And to recognize that this world, it can't come to the...There's no ultimate sense in which we're going to heaven on earth. We know that as Christians and yet sometimes I think we forget.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So we get sucked into the categories.

Cameron McAllister: We do.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And our tension comes when we don't recognize false dilemmas.

Cameron McAllister: Right. Yes, there you go.

Nathan Rittenhouse: When John Geroggi was in a one-time segment, somebody asked him, essentially, is Jesus a Republican or Democrat? “He's not even American.”

Cameron McAllister: Exactly.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And he's talking about a kingdom, not a democracy.

Cameron McAllister: Got to love John.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, shout out to John Geroggi. But it's just that idea of we can quickly become sucked into this conversation without seeing the bigger picture. It's a false dilemma. We don't have to... Yeah.

Cameron McAllister: Right. And if you see things from an internal perspective, there's a roominess to there to that. There's a capacious to it. Ideological diversity, so to speak, or just vastly differing viewpoints are a challenge, but they're not a threat.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Oh, well said.

Cameron McAllister: Because I mean, you really truly can see them for what they are. You have the freedom to empathize. And it doesn't mean you're spineless, it means you've got the right perspective. And I think that that's where Christians should be leading the way in these conversations. To not see ideological opponents, so to speak, as threats, but to be able to really encounter those ideas, treat them with dignity. Also, that doesn't mean you're a pushover. That doesn't mean that you're not firm on where you stand. As you were, no doubt, when you were speaking to that group, when you were on that campus. You were clear on where you stand, and sometimes you may come to a place where people will just say, "Well, then I'm done with you."

Nathan Rittenhouse: But it's very hard. It's very hard to be for them to perceive you as compassionate because I categorically had the idea that I can really value your life, though I disagree with you. They don't believe that. So they're projecting onto me, I hate you because I disagree with you, and that's not the way. So there's some extra discussion that has to happen there that's-

Cameron McAllister: For sure. Well, I think frankly, we also just need to be willing to be hated. That comes part and parcel with the gospel, doesn't it?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Jesus does say that a couple of times.

Cameron McAllister: Jesus kind of promised that.

Nathan Rittenhouse: If they hated me, they'll hate you.

Cameron McAllister: If they hated me, they'll hate you. Yes. Again, that's not licensed to go out and just be a complete jerk about it.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, you could be hated as a Christian because you're actually in an annoying person.

Cameron McAllister: Exactly. Exactly.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So you can't blame that on Christ.

Cameron McAllister: Right. But if you're hated because of your commitment to Christ and your fidelity to him above all else, that you could truly can count that in honor. That's what the apostles keep doing. They have this weird habit of doing that in the Book of Acts. Every time that they're persecuted, and they really are persecuted, they're beaten, they're flogged there, they're pulled before authorities, they caused riots and they counted it an honor to suffer shame for the Gospel.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Let me throw one more at you here. I'm going into a dangerous water here, but I'd love to hear what you think. I was trying to think, are there examples of truly liberal or secular societies that aren't post-Christian?

Cameron McAllister: Interesting.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So do you necessarily have to have a Judeo-Christian idea as the foundation of your society in order to allow for the proliferation of ideas that are different than yours? Or are there other ideologies that really do a good job of allowing other people to live in their area who disagree with them? And so people say, "Oh, we'll look at Europe." Well, yeah, that's my point.

Cameron McAllister: Right. Yep. Yep. And I think that's fair.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Do you necessarily have to have Christianity and the model of Christ as a way of treating other people and other ideas in order to...And then that kind of dilutes itself into a broadly more secular...But it almost seems like there's a foundational element, in issue here, that you sort of have to have that?

Cameron McAllister: I think so. Since you’re asking and since thoughts are free, yes, I do think that seems to be the case. Now, I would not say necessarily that America, the United States, is an explicitly Christian nation.

Nathan Rittenhouse: No. And I'm not making that as a statement.

Cameron McAllister: And I don't think that you're making that statement.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I'm saying but a ideological assumption there, that even if you look at Noah Webster's description of the formation of America and talking about the tolerance of America is going to be the thing that rockets us to, surpass the glory of ancient empires. He talks about the sacred lives of the other person. And so he's talking about toleration, but the toleration is based off of the sanctity of life. I mean, that doesn't come out of thin air.

Cameron McAllister: No, it does. And the United States may not be a Christian nation explicitly. I'm not-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Or borrowed heavily from this.

Cameron McAllister: Oh, the legacy is huge. I mean the influence of Christianity is massive in the United States. So much so that we have every person is endowed with certain inalienable rights. Now-

Nathan Rittenhouse: That's not obvious.

Cameron McAllister: Yes, that is not at all obvious. Any honest secularists, by the way, who specializes in human rights will tell you that. They'll say-

Nathan Rittenhouse: John Grays and others.

Cameron McAllister: Yes. Simply, there is nothing self-evident about the equal worth and value of every human being, the intrinsic worth. We have, in fact, we have a very, very hard time establishing that in any kind of metaphysical sense. So I don't see examples, and of course Europe, we're treading into deep waters here and we can just skip it before the wheels turns. Europe was formally, a pretty prime example of Christendom, but a lot has changed since the Enlightenment obviously.

But I think the bigger question now would be, it's a great question, is there an inherently, just a totally secular nation that can honor that kind of diversity, that has that capaciousness? I think the answer is no. I could be wrong, but I think the answer is no. But now the question is, is the United States heading in some sort of direction like that? We are growing increasingly post-Christian, I think, in the sense in which we are forgetting our Christian heritage. That seems to be happening to me.

More and more people are unfamiliar with the Bible. This true in our churches as well as outside of our churches. Biblical illiteracy is rampant. Even 50 years ago, I think you found a lot higher levels of biblical literacy. To the point a hundred years ago, seasoned skeptics would still have respect for a lot of scripture and know it quite well. That is not the case now.

So the question is as we move more and more away from that heritage, will we be able to sustain the kind of pluralism that is part of the blueprint of the United States? So I don't know.

Nathan Rittenhouse: One of the things you said before in our offline discussions is that more people would read the Bible if they thought that the Bible describes reality.

Cameron McAllister: Absolutely.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And so I think part of what we're pointing to here is saying, "Hey, these are big academic ideas, big socioeconomic, cultural, but really we're just thinking based off of stuff that Jesus said." I mean, so there's, dare I say, a pragmatism to analyzing somebody who claims to have created reality, who therefore may know how it works, just a guess.

And so that's a reminder then again for me to bring it back and put it on my shoulders. So what's the takeaway for this is that I really need to be acting and speaking and modeling this because it's going to be increasingly rare that you can value somebody else's life and really be for them even though you disagree with them. We're going to have to give a reason for why we do that, because it's going to become a rare thing.

And so "let your light so shine," I think the light's going to shine brighter in this. As those of us who are really passionately trying to follow Jesus, take that to heart and say, we do want to live in this way where we can look at the person and fundamentally disagree with what they do, but have them experience our position and posture toward them as one of great love and care.

Cameron McAllister: And so I think really our prayer would be, "Lord, help us to do that. Empower us by your spirit to heroically love our neighbors through ideological diversity and otherwise, and adversity, and help us to do that together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Help us to band together in our local churches and our families."

Because I think increasingly that will be difficult. But the beauty of the Gospel is that we don't do this alone. We do this with the empowerment of our Lord. And we do this together as a church and the church will prevail. We know that.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And so if we go back through...So what was the first point?

Cameron McAllister: Oh yeah, what hurts you, makes you weaker.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So throw the gospel into that, "In my weakness, he is strong."

Cameron McAllister: Exactly.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Of recognizing that there are things that God will be able to do through us that are disproportionate to who we are. And that weakness is not a sign of a lack of love. It's an embrace of humanity. And that there's redemption in suffering. That brokenness can be resolved and redeemed, so there's that one. What's point number two?

Cameron McAllister: Point number two is your feelings are accurate. Always accurate.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Run that one by Jesus.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And then number three?

Cameron McAllister: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And so there is good and evil in the world, but fundamentally what we are not called to is whipping out our Twitter swords every day and sorting that out.

Cameron McAllister: And of course, we are the problem and we are the reason Jesus died on the cross. So the problem is not other evil people, the problem is our own hearts. And if we forget that, we are in truly dangerous and naive territory. So great way to to end it there by showing the incisive ways in which, yeah, Christ just absolutely obliterates each of these misconceptions.

But thanks for sticking with us here as we talked about The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. It's a worthwhile book. I think you might find a lot in there to give you food for thought, and that is always valuable. We hope we've given you food for thought as well, and you've been listening to Thinking Out Loud, a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope.

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