The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure
The Search for Wisdom
his is a book about wisdom and its opposite. The book grows out of a
trip that we (Greg and Jon) took to Greece in August of 2016. We had
been writing about some ideas spreading through universities that we
thought were harming students and damaging their prospects for creating
fulfilling lives. These ideas were, in essence, making students less wise. So we
decided to write a book to warn people about these terrible ideas, and we
thought we’d start by going on a quest for wisdom ourselves. We both work
on college campuses; in recent years, we had heard repeated references to the
wisdom of Misoponos, a modern-day oracle who lives in a cave on the north
slope of Mount Olympus, where he continues the ancient rites of the cult of
We flew to Athens and took a five-hour train ride to Litochoro, a town at
the foot of the mountain. At sunrise the next day, we set off on a trail that
Greeks have used for thousands of years to seek communion with their gods.
We hiked for six hours up a steep and winding path. At noon we came to a
fork in the path where a sign said MISOPONOS, with an arrow pointing to the
right. The main path, off to the left, looked forbidding: it went straight up a
narrow ravine, with an ever-present danger of rockslides.
The path to Misoponos, in contrast, was smooth, level, and easy—a
welcome change. It took us through a pleasant grove of pine and fir trees,
across a strong wooden pedestrian bridge over a deep ravine, and right to the
mouth of a large cave.
Inside the cave we saw a strange scene. Misoponos and his assistants had
installed one of those take-a-number systems that you sometimes find in
sandwich shops, and there was a line of other seekers ahead of us. We took anumber, paid the 100 euro fee to have a private audience with the great man,
performed the mandatory rituals of purification, and waited.
When our turn came, we were ushered into a dimly lit chamber at the
back of the cave, where a small spring of water bubbled out from a rock wall
and splashed down into a large white marble bowl somewhat reminiscent of a
birdbath. Next to the bowl, Misoponos sat in a comfortable chair that
appeared to be a Barcalounger recliner from the 1970s. We had heard that he
spoke English, but we were taken aback when he greeted us in perfect
American English with a hint of Long Island: “Come on in, guys. Tell me
what you seek.”
Jon spoke first: “O Wise Oracle, we have come seeking wisdom. What are
the deepest and greatest of truths?”
Greg thought we should be more specific, so he added, “Actually, we’re
writing a book about wisdom for teenagers, young adults, parents, and
educators, and we were kind of hoping that you could boil down your
insights into some pithy axioms, ideally three of them, which, if followed,
would lead young people to develop wisdom over the course of their lives.”
Misoponos sat silently with his eyes closed for about two minutes. Finally,
he opened his eyes and spoke.
“This fountain is the Spring of Koalemos. Koalemos was a Greek god of
wisdom who is not as well-known today as Athena, who gets far too much
press, in my opinion. But Koalemos has some really good stuff, too, if you ask
me. Which you just did. So let me tell you. I will give you three cups of
He filled a small alabaster cup from the water bowl and handed it to us.
We both drank from it and handed it back.
“This is the first truth,” he said: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
So avoid pain, avoid discomfort, avoid all potentially bad experiences.”
Jon was surprised. He had written a book called The Happiness
Hypothesis, which examined ancient wisdom in light of modern psychology.
The book devoted an entire chapter to testing the opposite of the oracle’s
claim, which was most famously stated by Friedrich Nietzsche: “What doesn’t
kill me makes me stronger.”
Jon thought there must be some mistake.
“Excuse me, Your Holiness,” he said, “but did you really mean to say
‘weaker’? Because I’ve got quotes from many wisdom traditions saying that
pain, setbacks, and even traumatic experiences can make people stronger.”“Did I say ‘weaker’?” asked Misoponos. “Wait a minute . . . is it weaker or
stronger?” He squeezed his eyes shut as he thought about it, and then opened
his eyes and said, “Yes, I’m right, weaker is what I meant. Bad experiences are
terrible, who would want one? Did you travel all this way to have a bad
experience? Of course not. And pain? So many oracles in these mountains sit
on the ground twelve hours a day, and what does it get them? Circulation
problems and lower-back pain. How much wisdom can you dispense when
you’re thinking about your aches and pains all the time? That’s why I got this
chair twenty years ago. Why shouldn’t I be comfortable?” With clear
irritation in his voice, he added, “Can I finish?”
“I’m sorry,” said Jon meekly.
Misoponos filled the cup again. We drank it. “Second,” he continued:
“Always trust your feelings. Never question them.”
Now it was Greg’s turn to recoil. He had spent years practicing cognitive
behavioral therapy, which is based on exactly the opposite advice: feelings so
often mislead us that you can’t achieve mental health until you learn to
question them and free yourself from some common distortions of reality.
But having learned to control his immediate negative reactions, he bit his
tongue and said nothing.
Misoponos refilled the cup, and we drank again. “Third: Life is a battle
between good people and evil people.”
We looked at each other in disbelief. Greg could no longer keep quiet: “O
Great Oracle of Koalemos,” he began, haltingly, “can you explain that one to
“Some people are good,” Misoponos said slowly and loudly, as if he
thought we hadn’t heard him, “and some people are bad.” He looked at us
pointedly and took a breath. “There is so much evil in the world. Where does
it come from?” He paused as if expecting us to answer. We were speechless.
“From evil people!” he said, clearly exasperated. “It is up to you and the rest
of the good people in the world to fight them. You must be warriors for virtue
and goodness. You can see how bad and wrong some people are. You must
call them out! Assemble a coalition of the righteous, and shame the evil ones
until they change their ways.”
Praise for The Coddling of the American Mind
Also by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haid
INTRODUCTION | The Search for Wisdom
PART I Three Bad Ideas
CHAPTER 1 | The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker
CHAPTER 2 | The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Feelings
CHAPTER 3 | The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life Is a Battle Between Good
People and Evil People
PART II Bad Ideas in Action
CHAPTER 4 | Intimidation and Violence
CHAPTER 5 | Witch Hunts
PART III How Did We Get Here?CHAPTER 6 | The Polarization Cycle
CHAPTER 7 | Anxiety and Depression
CHAPTER 8 | Paranoid Parenting
CHAPTER 9 | The Decline of Play
CHAPTER 10 | The Bureaucracy of Safetyism
CHAPTER 11 | The Quest for Justice
PART IV Wising Up
CHAPTER 12 | Wiser Kids
CHAPTER 13 | Wiser Universities
CONCLUSION | Wiser Societies
Appendix 1: How to Do CBT
Appendix 2: The Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression
About the Authors
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