It has been a long time since I’ve read a book that I believe everyone should read, but after blazing through Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure in the last few days, I immediately knew I would have to share this with as many education stakeholders as possible.
What began as a conversation between the two authors in 2014 evolved into a jointly published article in The Atlantic under the same name in 2015; if you’d like to get a taste for the book, the article can be accessed here, but it is a mere primer compared to the six explanatory threads that they review in the course of the book itself.
The book is largely focused on a number of emergent phenomena in our culture over the last 20-25 years and how these are intertwined in ways that helped produce these outcomes despite our best intentions in creating them. In essence, the shift in our parenting strategies beginning in the mid-1990s, combined with a number of other factors such as screen time / social media usage, “concept creep” within what the authors have dubbed “a culture of safetyism”, increasing political polarization, and other detrimental forces have led to an exponential rise in mood disorders (depression and anxiety in particular) among iGen (or Generation Z) and a number of other challenges arising out of an over-structured childhood.
Although the entire book is riveting for a host of reasons, the chapters on education were particularly alarming and yet wholly unsurprising for any teacher who has been in the classroom over the last decade (the first iGen students turned 18 around 2013) and could see the difference first hand between the later Millennials and the kids who started showing up on high school campuses circa 2010 or so. Here are three subheadings for sections in one chapter alone that will resonate with any teacher or parent who has been raising a child during the last 20 years, all of which the authors argue have been incredibly detrimental to our students and their abilities when it comes to thinking, settling disagreements with one another, etc, etc, etc.
Loss of Unstructured Free Play
In essence, the average American born before 1985 had parents that allowed them to go outside on their own at roughly 6.5 years of age, give or take one year. This builds independence and autonomy in the child. Moreover, “kid societies” based on the democratic concept of free association was quite common, and children who played together engaged in creativity when coming up with novel games or learned about fairness through adjudicating their own disagreements. Virtually all iGen children grew up with a heavily structured childhood without these features, which has bred a lack of resilience and self-advocacy in many young people.
Childhood as Test Prep
The teachers who read that line alone need to look no further. We have known how much all the testing is pointing us in the wrong direction and doesn’t produce meaningful outcomes, which the authors review ad nauseam. Far worse than our kids not actually learning anything of value, the focus on testing actively erodes creativity and curiosity, dampens the desire to learn in general (because the incessant burden of studying for meaningless tests only stresses students out, creating a feedback loop), and leaves far too many of our future citizens feeling worthless because of a single–and BAD–measure.
Childhood as Academic Resume Building
For my fellow high school teachers, this is where it comes full circle. Due to the nature of the over-structured childhood, parents feel the need to push or plug their child into any and all extra-curricular activities that may help the student “succeed” by getting into the best colleges/universities. In effect, it is a laundry list of activities that typically give students no physical rest and only adds to the mental anguish of trying to keep up with everything.
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In the end, there are a number of actionable steps we can take to address these challenges, but it will take every education stakeholder to read this book and encourage others to do so. As someone who has been teaching students about mindfulness meditation to help decrease stress, improve attentional stamina, and better regulate one’s emotional responses, I know first hand that these techniques work and would be beneficial to introduce at a young age before getting too deep into school and life. The authors actually list this as their second suggestion, with the first being to teach all students the basics of CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. There are a number of very real and incredibly practical steps that we could take to help our kids moving forward, but the first thing you or anyone can do is read this book, think seriously about its implications, and then share these ideas with others, especially policymakers who could implement these ideas as we begin to re-imagine what education could and should be for the future.
P.S. – If you’re not a book reader, I would highly encourage you at least listen to this episode of The Knowledge Project, which is perhaps my favorite podcast of all time. Although Greg is not part of the interview, Jonathan (the other co-author) covers the highlights of their research in this riveting 75 minute interview. Just click this link below:
Jonathan Haidt: “When Good Intentions Go Bad” – The Knowledge Project, Episode 61