Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
The book starts with three epigraphs which succinctly state the philosophy of the authors.
Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.
Folk Wisdom, origin unknown
Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts,
unguarded. But once mastered, no one can help you as much,
not even your father or mother.
The line dividing good and evil cuts through
the heart of every human being.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
While the authors support their arguments with science, they emphasize that their conclusions agree with the traditional teachings of cultures, religions, and philosophies which evolved to hold societies together. We evolved in tribes of approximately 200 individuals, but to survive and thrive in the future, we must expand our tribalism to include the entire population, current and future, not just the accidental state, culture, color, or religion of our birth. We need to resist and move beyond the easy and comfortable thinking of us versus them; good versus bad. We also need to protect ourselves against “groupthink” which is also part of our inheritance.
Lukianoff and Haidt are college professors who are watching how students act and the responses of the administrations. The authors are concerned about how “safetyism” is interfering with the ability of colleges to fulfill their mission. Safetyism shields young people from the experiences which will be uncomfortable in the short term but are necessary to develop the character and antifragility necessary to handle the challenges that life will present to them. The authors recognize that life is now more stressful for children than it was in the past and that true trauma can be disabling, but the definition of trauma cannot be allowed to creep until everything that someone doesn’t like is considered trauma.
An education should be preparation for the road; it is about opening and challenging minds, not submitting to the illusion that coddling students will develop the mental and physical resilience necessary to have a productive and satisfying life. It is about learning how to think, how to solve problems, how to handle opposing views, how to win, how to lose, and how to compromise. We delude young people if we lead them to assume that someone will always be there to assume responsibility. Prolonged education delays the full responsibilities of adulthood but does not eliminate them. The simple ethics of childhood is an important ideal to teach young children, but it becomes fuzzy in application. Rarely is one idea all good while another idea is all bad; one person all right and the other person all wrong; one culture good and others bad. Students need to be guided through these conflicts using historical examples and present manifestations to see that these problems have always existed and always will, even if their form has changed, but the lessons are sterile without experience.
The book is organized around the three Great Untruths.
1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. Children need to be challenged, take risks, fail and not quit. Children cannot become antifragile without these experiences.
2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings. There is nothing objective about our feelings. Trusting your feelings has been shown to lead to anxiety and depression. The most successful treatment for these conditions and PTSD has been shown to be exposure to what upsets you and the gradual mastery of your rational thinking over your feelings. This is known as cognitive behavioral therapy.
3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. “As a result of our long evolution for tribal competition, the human mind readily does dichotomous, us-versus-them thinking. If we want to create welcoming, inclusive communities, we should be doing everything we can to turn down the tribalism and turn up the sense of common humanity.”
When we dehumanize and demonize our opponents, we abandon the possibility of peacefully resolving our differences, and seek to justify violence against them.
There are two ideas about safe spaces: One is a very good idea and one is a terrible idea. The idea of being physically safe on a campus – not being subjected to sexual harassment and physical abuse, or being targeted specifically, personally, for some kind of hate speech – “you are an n-word,” or whatever – I am perfectly fine with that. But there’s another view that is now I think ascendant, which I think is just a horrible view, which is that “I need to be safe ideologically. I need to be safe emotionally. I just need to feel good all the time, and if someone says something that I don’t like, that’s a problem for everybody else, including the university administration. I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.
The following is an excerpt from a commencement speech that Chief Justice John Roberts made at his son’s graduation from a prestigious, private middle school. He understands the concept of antifragility and what is necessary for it to be developed. While children can obviously be harmed by trauma, that are also at risk when they are coddled.
From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend on your ability to see the message in your misfortune.