The Kids Aren’t Alright aka “The Coddling of the American Mind” Comes to Vietnam

Image courtesy of Stories by Shivangi: Validation vs Coddling – Did you know the difference?

Last month, I met with a small group of US students who are in Vietnam as participants in a well-known fall study abroad program that runs from 5 September to 18 December. This is something I used to do every fall – until the arrival of COVID-19 – for two reasons: 1) as a favor to the Vietnamese professor who runs the program; 2) to share my Vietnam-related knowledge and experience with students. A fringe benefit is finding out why they chose Vietnam and to learn about some of their perceptions and experiences during their brief time in-country.

As with most US study abroad programs, this one doesn’t come cheap. Here’s a breakdown of the costs:

Tuition: $17,434

Room and board: $3,425

Visa Fee: $90.00

Books: $50.00

Estimated total: $20,999

That amounts to $200 a day in case you’re counting. I mention the cost because it tells you something about the social class background of many of the students. (Yes, some are receiving significant financial aid and/or merit-based scholarships to defray the cost. They are the ones “the system,” in its wisdom, rewards so that it appears to be more just than it really is.)

Not surprisingly, most were from private and, in some cases, elite institutions with acceptance rates ranging from “most selective” (less than 15%) to “extremely selective” (less than 35%) and “very selective” (less than 50%). There was one token student from a state university with an acceptance rate of 38%.

Diarrhea of the Mouth & Constipation of the Mind

A “good cop” version of one of the more obnoxious of the bunch, hand up, mouth open, and mind closed.

A few of the students attempted to monopolize the session with a barrage of questions and attacks on various positions of mine, including an ad hominem attack. They were argumentative, disrespectful, and rude. The lack of civility was palpable. It was obvious some of them came to the discussion with an ax to grind and a fight to pick. Of the readings I suggested on a blog page I created for them (you’re welcome! :-)), all articles of mine about different aspects and issues in Vietnam, some chose to focus on two.

Graffiti is visual pollution, an eyesore Vietnam can do without: The gist of their argument was that I don’t understand these graffiti “artists” and that they need to be “educated.” They failed to recognize the obvious fact that tagging in the US and Vietnam are qualitatively very different and that tagging was imported. What I liked was that I hit a nerve, often one of the goals of my writing.

I recommended they read the Vietnamese translation of that article (most with the help of Google Translate) with special attention paid to the over 200 comments, nearly all of which were in agreement with my points. It was mainly the expats and other foreigners who took issue with my attack on graffiti “artists” and tagging. Bôi bẩn thành phố

Here was another one: Constructive Criticism Rooted in Respect: A View from Vietnam. The more vocal ones agreed with the French expat I wrote about, claiming that my criticism of various issues in Vietnam such as environmental pollution was an expression of cultural imperialism. How dare I, a white male, impose my foreign views on the locals! My response, as I wrote in that essay and elsewhere, was that I’m a permanent resident of Vietnam. It is my world, too. I choose to join many Vietnamese and other concerned expats in contributing to the debate about important issues of the day. We are human beings, first and foremost; the passport we carry is irrelevant.

Another view was that Vietnam should essentially get a pass on many current problems because of its traumatic past. My response was to ask them to read this article You can’t eat money: the cost of unlimited growth and then tell me how many of the four issues I address, natural resource depletion, e.g., sand mining, overfishing, deforestation (not related to Agent Orange use), and water pollution, are related to past wars. Seriously? Think of this as the coddling and patronization of Vietnam and its people by well-meaning yet misguided foreigners.

All in all, I found them, or at least the active participants, to be entitled, arrogant, and ignorant. Ignorance is fine if you acknowledge it and actively seek to expand your knowledge. Life is for learning. Thinking it’s bliss, or even being proud of it, however, as so many US Americans are these days, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, is counterproductive and damaging.

I have no idea how the others felt because most did not participate, which is usually the case when the few spend so much time “kidsplaining.” (I love the definition and the example. So fitting. When a kid who has just barely learned something starts to lecture adults who know way more about the topic. Example: I can’t believe my son, he just took his training wheels off yesterday and already he is kidsplaining at me about how to take a corner.)

They just stated their positions and argued endlessly without listening and learning. Truth be told, I, too, was a tad arrogant when I was their age with all of that new newly acquired knowledge and experience, but I also had a hunger for knowledge and a willingness to listen and learn. Equally important, I respected my professors and fellow students.

The ad hominem attack, always the refuge of the desperate, was to ask me how many different types of people I come into contact with, as if I have no contact with people who are different from myself. I am a victim of my “privilege,” or so some thought. That was rich coming from entitled students, mostly of the white persuasion, who spend most of their time in Vietnam in a US American ghetto. Like most of their generation, far too much of their time is spent in their virtual world.

The Coddling of the American Mind

Louise Richardson, the outgoing vice chancellor of Oxford University addressed this issue in a wide-ranging interview when she expressed this concern: “I worry that academics will be afraid to take public positions because they just don’t want to submit themselves to the pillory that is social media . . . I do wish our students were more resilient about not feeling undone by nasty remarks thrown at them.”

The article below and the book on which it’s based offer some insights into the mindset and behavior of many members of Generation Z, including some of the SIT students. Coddling: treat in an indulgent or overprotective way.

The Coddling of the American Mind (9-15) I read the article shortly after it was published.

How America Reacted to ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ (then Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennet interviewed Greg Lukianoff, one of the co-authors)

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2019 book based on the article) On my list of “things to read.”

Note: As Jon Haidt, the other co-author, points out in this 2017 interview, this phenomenon only occurs on residential campuses. Both he and his interviewer conjured up images of Gilligan’s Island and a co-ed Lord of the Flies, amusing and dark.

My advice to the kids is simple. Ask the tough questions, engage in robust debate and discussion, but take time to listen and learn from the moderator, whoever he or she is, and your classmates. You don’t know it all nor do you have a monopoly on the truth. Most of all, show respect and humility to others.

Postscript: Yes, the title comes with a grateful nod to The Who.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

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