What is happening at American universities? Jonathan Haidt, moral psychologist and critically acclaimed author, provides answers in his latest book co-authored with Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation For Failure, which is now on sale. Yesterday Haidt discussed what’s been going wrong in childrearing in the past few decades. Today he’ll discuss what’s been happening when today’s youth show up at college.
Madeleine Kearns: In your new book you and Greg Lukianoff argue that overprotection is badly affecting the development of young people today. Previously, we discussed where the “bad ideas” referred to in your book’s title originated and the damage they do before young people go to college. Here, we’ll discuss what’s been happening since “iGen” started arriving on college campuses around 2013.
Today’s young people are arriving at university expecting safety, you observe, so why can’t we simply make colleges safe spaces to meet those expectations?
Jonathan Haidt: We certainly could. If someone has a plan for raising kids in a safe space that would extend all the way to the age of 85, and they could be confident that the child will stay in the safe zone as an adult, then you could do it. But if you want kids who will go out and get a job and do something in the wider world, then you have to let them fly on their own at some point. I think it is a national tragedy that Americans — on the whole, not everyone — overprotect their children all the way through high school. If we extend that overprotection through college, it would make things worse.
MK: Some people think the emphasis on safe spaces and microaggressions, etc., is overblown. What do you say to that?
JH: There was a spate of articles in early 2018 arguing that despite the presence of a few dozen high-profile anecdotes, the survey data shows that nothing is really changing.
At Heterodox Academy [a politically diverse community of academics who endorse viewpoint diversity on campus] we claim you can’t think well unless you have good critics. Those articles were written by some good critics, particularly Jeff Sachs [a political scientist at Acadia University in Canada]. And what our good critics have shown us is that nationally representative data on college students doesn’t show big shifts in attitudes about free speech. Rather it shows small shifts in some of the directions we’re talking about — if you limit the analysis to the little data we have on iGen. If you look at Millennials, there are no shifts. The debate helped me to refine my thinking. I now see that if you look at all 4,500 American institutions of higher education you’re not going to see much happening at the great majority of schools, particularly those that are non-selective or non-residential. But if you focus on elite schools, especially in the Northeast and on the West Coast, the dynamic has changed sharply, and the change happened only once iGen began arriving on campus, in 2013. [iGen refers to the generation after the Millennials; it begins with birth year 1995.]
MK: Can you please clarify, when you say “not much is happening,” do you mean that speakers aren’t being disinvited, shamed, harassed etc.?
JH: Exactly. Let’s take the major new terms of safetyism. The big four are: “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” “microaggressions,” and “bias response teams.” There are a bunch of others. But those are the four “innovations” that are based on the idea that students are fragile, words can be violence, and students need more protection from harmful words. That package of concepts and programs seems not to be very common on the great majority of campuses, especially in red states. But at the most elite schools, as far as I can tell, it is now common.
Let me be clear here: People on the left say that this is a classic “moral panic” that has gripped the Right and is fomented by right-wing media. Those left-wing critics are correct. There is a moral panic on the right; there is exaggeration and scare-mongering. However, to say that there is a moral panic does not mean that there isn’t also a real problem.
MK: So right-wing media are exaggerating?
JH: Clearly right-wing media loves these stories: It amplifies them and rarely digs down to see if there’s more to any particular story. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. There are some sites that exist in order to attack and humiliate the universities. Those sites make my work harder. I believe that American universities can fix themselves, but I think they are less likely to change if they feel under attack.
MK: What’s your take on what’s happening, then?
JH: Greg and I think that there is a new moral order that emerged on some elite college campuses between 2013 and 2017. We call it a culture of safetyism. It has not yet spread to most of America’s 4,500 institutions of higher education, but it is spreading, and we don’t know how far or how fast. Greg and I only first saw it in 2013/2014. Now a lot of the same language — the language of safety — is spreading into areas of the corporate world that hire from elite schools. For example, when I talk to journalists on the left, they tell me that their young colleagues fresh out of college are different and, let’s just say, have different attitudes about journalism, free speech, and the value of dissent.
MK: Since political interest is inevitable on the right and the left, how can we move past politics and address the problem (the extent to which it does exist)?
JH: We’re now in a polarization cycle. People on both the left and right are fed a stream of outrages every day about the horrors of the other side. And they are correct about the extremists on the other side. I think there’s no way to get through to the extremists; their brains have been eaten by hatred. But they are not correct about the moderates on the other side, or about the average person on the other side. Most people on the right and left are still sane and reasonable: They generally like universities and are open to our arguments about what’s going wrong, and how to make things better.
MK: We talked briefly about social media, which can contribute to groupthink and the “call-out” culture. You have written that humans care deeply about their reputations, and this can motivate them to self-censor. How is that contributing to the problem on campus?
JH: I would say that self-censorship is the marker of the problem, not the cause of the problem. A university is a very special place that has different norms from anyplace else. For professors in a research community or for students in a classroom, we put them together so that they can challenge each other, and in that way they can counteract each other’s confirmation bias.
A research community cannot function without dissent, without people speaking up, without people voicing their doubts and criticisms. The results of research that was not fully vetted would be unreliable. Similarly, in a classroom, if there is an orthodox view and students are afraid to challenge it, then the education of all students is damaged, whatever their political views.
MK: In your chapter on witch hunts — which was fascinating on witch hunts generally —
JH: [laughs] Yes, I learned a lot about them, too.
MK: — you mention three defining features, and then you add a fourth: 1) Witch hunts arise quickly, 2) they are crimes against the collective, 3) the charges are often trivial or fabricated, and you added 4) there is fear of defending the accused. Why did you add that the last one?
JH: One of the really ugly features of these campus events has been the dishonesty. That is, whenever there is a petition to denounce a professor or an article, it will get hundreds or even thousands of signatures, including from people who then say privately, “I didn’t want to support it but I felt I had to.” Typically few people will stand up publicly even if they know the accused to be innocent.
MK: Another theme that comes up is the role that university bureaucracies play in all of this. Could you please say more on that?
JH: Imagine an idealized university in which everyone agrees that our goal is to find truth and everything is organized to support scholars, scientists, and students in finding truth. While no university has ever been close to perfect, before the 1980s university culture was very different from other areas of society, and universities were almost entirely led by faculty members. Then in the 1980s, many observed that a new set of concerns washed across the universities as they became more corporatized. They hired many more administrators, they hired more non-academics as deans, they were much more concerned with raising money and with reputation management. They were put on a much more corporate footing, which had pluses and minuses. In any case, the mindset of business crept into the academic world and changed it.
That has implications. If there is a free-speech issue or an accusation of wrongdoing, then a university that thinks of itself as in pursuit of truth will work hard to find the truth; whereas a university that is more corporatized will work hard to minimize exposure, liability, and bad coverage. And this may be why we have seen so few examples of strong leadership by college presidents in the last few years. They are fearful of explosions on campus. They are in a reactive mode.
If university leaders would state clearly the goals and values of a university when students arrive, and make it clear that actions such as shouting down a speaker are very serious violations of academic values and will be treated the same as plagiarism — possibly leading to expulsion — then there would be fewer such events. To be clear, speaker shoutdowns are not common, but those that do happen generally get a lot of coverage and do a lot of damage to the reputation of that university, and all universities.
MK: So the students are at the driving wheel?
JH: Yes, Greg and I think so. … There have been waves of political correctness before. In the 1960s, the students were also the ones driving change. In the 1990s the wave of PC then was more faculty-driven; one of the central issues was which works to include in the literary canon. But the wave of activism that began in 2015 was entirely student-driven. My sense, from talking to students, professors, and administrators, is that when people self-censor, it is mostly the students that they fear. You never know when one word or phrase will “trigger” a strong reaction from a student.
And again, let me be clear: it is not that most students have lost their minds. That’s the right-wing panic story, and it’s not true. Most students are perfectly normal, healthy, not very different from what they used to be. They want to learn and be exposed to a variety of ideas. But there’s been a moral vacuum and a leadership vacuum at a time of enormous fear and change, when we’re all trying to adapt to life lived within the maelstrom of social media. This is not mostly a story about a change in the average student; it’s a story about a change in campus dynamics, in which the new “callout culture” and the ease of mounting a social media campaign is making many of us much more defensive and cautious and distrustful.
MK: Some people have compared the new orthodoxy to a religion. Do you agree with that?
JH: Yes, John McWhorter has done a very good job of making that case. In my book, The Righteous Mind, the last third of it is on the principle “morality binds and blinds.” That whole last part of the book is on the evolution of religious psychology. Or rather I should say that the psychology of religion is active any time we look at social and political movements, on the right or the left.
MK: Finally: Where do we go from here?
JH: The essential first step is to have an honest, open, social-scientific discussion of what is happening within universities. Greg and I are hoping that our book will catalyze that discussion.
I believe that universities can solve this problem by themselves. There are many efforts in states to introduce legislation to compel universities to do things. I understand the desire to enact such legislation, but I think the history of legislative attempts to manage university life and culture does not give us reason for optimism. Such bills may do more harm than good. It’s now clear to me that there is a will to change on campus. There is a growing recognition among administrators that their job is now one of constant crisis management, and they are not happy about it. There is a growing recognition among professors that the culture of safetyism makes it harder for them to do their jobs. There is a clear recognition among students that callout culture is bad for students. So the will to change is there. I predict that this academic year we’ll start to see things turn around, and we’ll see many more efforts to reassert academic values and create more space for free and open discussion.
My hope is that we’ll try to address all the diversity issues together, at the same time. We all want campuses on which everyone feels welcome, regardless of their race, religion, gender, sexual identity, or politics. I think that is our biggest challenge on campus, and I think that we have the tools to solve it.