Every generation looks back at the one that follows and asks, "What went wrong?" The answers find multiple causes inside the family and outside in politics, offering fragmented and provocative insights into how we got to the America we live in today.
World War II veterans, for example, returned home to enjoy the values they thought they had fought to preserve, and the generation they spawned radically changed all that. "Make love not war" brought on a rebellious hedonism among baby boomers protesting the Vietnam War, inflicting collateral damage in the mores and manners held dear by their parents. The "Spock-marked generation," as some parents called their offspring in the 1960s, was indulged by the permissive parenting prescribed in the baby-care book by Dr. Benjamin Spock that became a bible for inexperienced parents.
Whether by toilet training or permissiveness, perspectives changed.
A decade later, Christopher Lasch identified a culture of narcissism and blamed new experts pushing a psychology emphasizing self-esteem. Decadence and defiance trumped kinship and responsibility in the therapeutic society where medicalized acts of "attitude" diminished standards of accountability.
Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago of the 1980s found college students refusing to sublimate their libido into reading great works of philosophy and literature, eager to let it all hang out, "closing the American mind." Socratic questioning and sublime reasoning were reduced to nonconformist relativism.
All of these generalizations and catch phrases have as many exceptions as books espousing them, of course, but they make us look harder at the changes shaping the current generation.
With an intentional, if wry, reference to Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," a new book of trendy thinking is called "The Coddling of the American Mind." It's written by two authors who bring diverse talents to cultural criticism. Greg Lukianoff, a lawyer and fierce defender of free speech, is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University. They ask how good intentions and bad ideas are setting a generation up for failure. Sound familiar?
The focus is on the generation following the millennials, popularly known as "iGen," those born roughly after 1995 and growing up with the internet in their pocket. Many of these iGens, no matter how savvy with their iPhone, withdraw from life and seek protection from the slings and arrows of their outrageous fortune, which often turns out to be an elite college where they insist on protection from the slightest provocation.
These fragile seekers of safe spaces often try to keep speakers who disagree with them from being heard, lest they awaken prejudicial impulses. They demand trigger warnings to prepare them for reading classics of literature that threaten their psychological equilibrium with reminders of tragic events, real or imagined, in their own lives. Sophocles and Shakespeare be damned.
The iGens in this scenario are passive aggressors determined to dictate new rules to protect their virtuous vulnerabilities. To do this, they join mobs tyrannizing politically incorrect teachers, administrators, classmates and guest speakers. The noise of the censor rules the land, or at least the campus. The authors call this "vindictive protectiveness. "
We've all heard examples of the snowflakes who cultivate their personalized post-traumatic stresses to ruin the lives of others, but Lukianoff and Haidt provide a larger framework for pointing out how this dangerous corrupting and corroding academic corner of college culture finds echoes in the larger world.
Instead of confronting their fears and dealing with them, they justify them by making them political. It doesn't matter so much for those whose parents are willing to pay the high fees of collegiate babysitters and safety nets, since they will probably cushion the future of their adult children. But college is supposed to be the training ground for future leaders, where the young emerge from their teens to test tough ideas in the arena of robust debate with more than polarizing rhetoric and aggressive behavior. Members of this generation pose a problem for everyone's future. The mobs protesting Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation, who got in the face of the senators in elevators and hallways in the Capitol, are the most recent example of emotional reasoning gone wild.
The authors of "The Coddling of the America Mind" argue that many of the iGens receiving so much attention today were overprotected in home and in school, even on playgrounds, where small hurts are nurtured rather than overcome, and fears are dramatized and exaggerated in a retreat from life's challenges. They recommend an epigraph from folk wisdom for raising the next generation: "Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child." Then look out for the potholes.