Good intentions and bad ideas

On the occasion of the latest Spanish educational law, we can take the opportunity to reflect on how the good intentions and bad ideas of successive educational reforms have contributed to create a social environment that does not exactly favor the success of the youngest and therefore of our society.

May 27, 2022-Reading time: 3 minutes

Some time ago I read a book entitled "The Transformation of the Modern Mind. How good intentions and bad ideas are dooming a generation to failure", written by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff.

As I have nothing to do with the publication, I feel free to recommend its reading to our educational authorities, as well as to today's parents and educators, as it seems to me that they could extract interesting ideas to succeed in the important task of educating the new generations, in which our future is at stake.

It is a book published in the United States in 2018 by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and free speech expert Greg Lukianoff, which now appears in Spanish. The phenomena they describe are already perfectly detectable in Europe and, more specifically, in Spain.

Throughout its more than four hundred pages, which are a pleasure to read, they try to answer the question: are we adequately preparing young people to face adult life or are we protecting them too much? And they answer it by shedding some interesting light for all those interested in the education of the young.

The authors tell how some strange things started happening on campuses in the United States around 2015. Students claiming to defend progressive ideas booed politicians and lecturers at their university and prevented them from speaking. Does this situation ring any bells? I suppose it does to Pablo Iglesias and Rosa Díez, yes, since the former starred years ago in a boycott of a lecture given by the latter at a Spanish public university.

In increasing numbers, also in Spain, many students are reluctant to show their opinions and discuss them frankly. For some time now, what should be the "gymnasium of the mind" is full of people who shy away from debate and critical thinking, a curious phenomenon for a university.

As the authors describe in this book, the reason for this distressing situation is due to three misconceptions that have entered the subconscious of many young and not-so-young people who believe they are defending a generous and inclusive vision of education.

The first: what does not kill you makes you weaker (you must flee at all costs from any difficulty). The second: you must always trust your feelings (and therefore be extremely susceptible). And finally: life is a struggle between good and bad people (and you belong to the good ones).

As this courageous and rigorous book demonstrates, these notions, which at first glance may seem beneficial because they protect the individual and flatter his or her own instincts, actually contradict the most basic psychological principles about well-being.

Accepting these falsehoods, and thereby promoting a safety culture in which no one wants to listen to arguments they don't like, interferes with the social, emotional and intellectual development of young people. And it makes it more difficult for them to navigate the often complex and difficult path to adulthood.

Or, in Haidt's own words: "Many young people born after 1995, those who have been arriving at universities since 2013, are fragile, hypersusceptible and Manichean. They are not prepared to face life, which is conflict, nor democracy, which is debate. They are headed for failure.

This is coupled with the well-known general increase in anxiety and depression in adolescents that began around 2011, more prevalent in girls and young women than in boys and young men. This increase is manifested in rising rates of both hospital admissions for self-harm and suicides.

But fortunately the book does not limit itself to making an accurate and somber diagnosis of the difficulties present in our young people. It also provides valuable advice for us older people to help them overcome them successfully.

Like muscles or bones, children are "antifragile," meaning that they need stress and challenges to learn, adapt and grow. If we protect them from all kinds of potentially disruptive experiences - such as failing a subject - we will make them unable to cope with such events when they are older.

On the other hand, it is advisable to warn them against the most frequent cognitive distortions, so that they are not so easily deceived by the falsehoods of emotional reasoning (I am no good, my world is bleak and there is no hope for my future).

Finally, we should combat the culture of public accusation and the "us versus them" mentality, which makes us forget that, as Solzhenitsyn said, "the line that divides good and evil runs through the heart of every human being. Or as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says, "human life is not radically divided between irredeemably good and irredeemably evil people".

Finally, the authors reaffirm with data the negative influence of the early availability of smartphones and social networks, the decline of "unsupervised free play" and "curriculum arms races" on the mental health of our young people. Significantly, they dedicate the book to their mothers, who did all they could to prepare them for the road.

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