Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. Preferred pronouns. Checked privileges. If you work at an American university these days, you have to tread as if on eggshells, if not land mines. One ill-judged microaggression is all it takes to be accused of racism or sexism, transphobia or Islamophobia, harassment or full-blown rape. Often, such accusations lead to investigations that are the antithesis of due process, with the transgressor deemed guilty until proved innocent.
I remember when it was not like this. Sixteen years ago, what lured me away from Oxford to New York University (NYU) and Harvard was the sense that the real intellectual action in my field (economic history) was on the western side of the Atlantic. The US economists, in particular, were impressively free in their speech. To present a paper at one of their seminars was to run a gauntlet of caustic criticism. “There are idiots,” Larry Summers famously began one of his papers. “Look around.” He was right. Unfortunately, idiotic ideas were in the process of taking over large swathes of academic life.
The speed with which campus life has changed for the worse is one of the most important points made by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in this important if disturbing book. Lukianoff is a lawyer and head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire), which works to protect academic freedom. Haidt is a professor of social psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business and the founder of Heterodox Academy, which promotes intellectual diversity in academic life — the one type of diversity that universities appear not to care about.
Of course, the authors no more believe in a prelapsarian paradise than I do. When Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind more than 30 years ago, there were already reasons to worry about where the fad for “political correctness” was leading: after all, Bloom’s subtitle was How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. The crusade against the western civilisation and the “dead white men” who created it is not new.
But Lukianoff and Haidt are describing not the closing but the losing of the American mind. In their view, things changed as recently as 2013, when they first heard students demanding that “triggering” material be removed from courses and “offensive” speakers be disinvited from giving talks.
The media tend to cover only the sensational episodes: the violence at Middlebury College, Vermont, last year when the social scientist Charles Murray came to speak, or the Antifa riot at Berkeley that prevented an appearance by the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. But the real story here is much more widespread and insidious. Rowdy protests are the least original things today’s student radicals do — and by the standards of the anti-Vietnam era they are amateurs.
What we see today is more like a religious cult than a political moment. Devotees insist on using the pronouns “they” or the made-up “zhe” for students who regard “he” or “she” as “cis-heteronormative”. They like to congregate in “safe spaces” where they can take refuge from ideas they find uncongenial. (The original safe space, at Brown University in 2015, “was equipped with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members purportedly trained to deal with trauma”. Cult members glory in infantilising themselves.)
Rather than protest against speakers they consider heretics, the zealots prefer to have them disinvited or “no-platformed”. According to Lukianoff’s research, there have been 379 disinvitation campaigns since 2000. Nearly half were successful.
The campus cult also owes a debt to China’s Cultural Revolution. Like their predecessors, today’s American Red Guards like to humiliate academics who stand up to them — professors such as Nick Christakis, the master of Silliman College at Yale, whose wife dared to defend Halloween costumes from the charge of cultural appropriation, and Bret Weinstein, the biology professor at Evergreen who opposed a “day of absence” that required white students and faculty to vacate the college’s premises for a day.
I highly recommend watching the videos of these struggle sessions. The students scream hysterically at their incredulous victim, refusing to let him speak, or sinisterly snapping their fingers to indicate their disapproval.
Lukianoff and Haidt trace all this lunacy back to three bad ideas that have spread throughout American education, beginning in primary school. The first is that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”. The “coddling” of the book’s title begins early with the measures devised in schools to protect children from such menaces as peanut allergies. Today’s students expect to be equally well protected from white supremacists.
Bad idea number two is what the authors call “the untruth of emotional reasoning: always trust your feelings”. Today’s students rarely say: “I think that…” The correct form is: “As a gay woman of colour, I feel that…”
The third bad idea is that “life is a battle between good people and evil people”, an idea lent intellectual respectability by the likes of Herbert Marcuse and Michel Foucault, but the basis for witch-hunts since time immemorial.
As Lukianoff argues, on the basis of his own positive experiences with cognitive behavioural therapy, these ideas are the opposite of what young people need if they are to develop mental resilience.
Yet bad ideas are always lying around. The libraries are full of them. The really interesting question is why these ones have gained ascendancy now. Here Lukianoff and Haidt tell a plausible story. The increasing polarisation and shrill tone of American politics has played a part. The mental-health epidemic, especially among girls, is another variable. (A 2016 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, based on data from 139 colleges, found that half of all students surveyed in 2015–16 had sought counselling for mental-health concerns.)
Children who grew up with smartphones and social media (“iGen”) seem more prone to depression than the millennials who preceded them. Also at fault, however, are the paranoid parents, who thought that wrapping their offspring in cotton wool was the way to raise them.
The final, fatal ingredient has been the tendency of academic administrators to appease snowflake students. Every university in America has an ever-growing contingent of “officers” whose role it is not just to coddle their fragile charges but to encourage them to vent grievances. To give just one example, Fire has found that two-fifths of American colleges have established some form of bias reporting system.
Despite all the evidence they present, the authors are optimists. All this can be fixed, they insist, concluding their book with a list of remedies, from free play for younger children to free speech for older ones. If only the problem were so fixable. Unfortunately, history suggests that such cultural revolutions are quite slow to subside unless, as in China, they are forcibly suppressed. Belief in witchcraft took at least a century to die out after the 17th-century witch craze.
When I look at today’s universities, where conservative academics have gone from being an endangered species to an oxymoron, I see little if any sign of impending improvement. As for Lukianoff and Haidt, it’s surely only a matter of time before they are both “called out” as white supremacists or otherwise defamed.
Once it was closing; now it is coddled. What’s next for the American mind? A return to sanity seems too much to hope for.
Allen Lane £20 pp338
Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford