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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Gadfly

The Gadfly - The Chronicle of Higher Education

"Haidt roams the stage, TED-talk style (he’s delivered four), and explains what he calls "the new moral culture spreading on many college campuses." It is a culture, he says, that values victims, prioritizes emotional safety, silences dissent, and distorts scholarship. It is a culture that undermines the university’s traditional mission to pursue truth — "veritas" is right there on the seals of Harvard and Yale — in favor of a new mission: the pursuit of social justice. It is a culture that Haidt believes is fueled by three factors: political polarization, the rise of social media, and a lack of ideological diversity in the professoriate.

Through the 1980s, Haidt says at the conference, liberals outnumbered conservatives on college faculties by about two to one. In his own field, psychology, a left/right disparity of four to one existed until the mid-1990s. "That’s not really a problem as long as there are some people on the right who can raise objections if someone says something that’s just overtly partisan and isn’t backed up by the facts," he says. Today, however, precious few conservatives are in psychology departments. "If you say something pleasing to the left about race, gender, immigration, or any other issue, it’s likely to get waved through to publication," says Haidt. "People won’t ask hard questions. They like it. They want to believe it." This represents "a real research-legitimacy problem in the social sciences."

Solving that problem has become a crusade for Haidt. In 2015 he co-founded Heterodox Academy to advocate for what its mission statement calls "viewpoint diversity." The organization began as an online salon frequented by a few colleagues, but after high-profile student protests at the University of Missouri, Yale, and elsewhere, the ranks began to swell. The group now has more than 800 members, primarily tenured or tenure-track faculty. The active ones conduct research and distill their findings into blog posts, which has made the Heterodox Academy website a clearinghouse for data and views on academic bias, scientific integrity, and the latest campus free-speech flaps. Last year a quarter-million people visited the website...

At the Students for Liberty conference, Haidt explained that his activism is driven by a belief that the stakes could not be higher: "This could be the beginning of the end for liberal democracy."...

"The election has ramped up emotions so strongly that any effort to say, ‘You really need to have more conservatives in the university, and you need to listen to them’ strikes some people as immoral." On the other hand, he says, the election has forced a reckoning. More academics are saying, "Wow, we really are in a bubble. We must get out of this bubble."...

When he taught at Virginia, the psychology department hosted a weekly lunch presentation. One day the topic was women and math. The talk focused on how cultural messages girls receive dissuade them from pursuing math. Haidt proposed an alternative explanation: "We know that prenatal hormones influence the brain, changing all kinds of interests. Is it possible that girls are just less interested in math?" There was dead silence. "Wait," he pressed. "Do you think hormones influence behavior?" More silence. "Nobody agreed, nobody disagreed, nobody would touch it," he recalls. "That’s when I realized our science is suffering. Social science is really hard; it’s always multiple causal threads. If several threads are banned, then you cannot solve any problem."

In 2011, during a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Haidt asked the audience of about 1,000 people for a show of hands: How many considered themselves liberals? Eighty percent raised their hands. Centrists or moderates? About 20 hands. Libertarians? Twelve. Conservatives? Three. "When we find any job in the nation in which women or minorities are underrepresented by a factor of three or four, we make the strong presumption that this constitutes evidence of discrimination," he said. "And if we can’t find evidence of overt discrimination, we presume that there must be a hostile climate that discourages underrepresented groups from entering." He likened the situation of nonliberals in social psychology to closeted homosexuals in the 1980s.

His talk became a sensation. The New York Times covered it; the society’s email list lit up in debate. One post in particular caught Haidt’s attention. It was by Jose Duarte, a grad student at the University of Arizona, who argued that social psychology is so riddled with embedded ideological assumptions that a lot of peer-reviewed research might be invalid...

Haidt believes that the vast majority of professors share Heterodox Academy’s concern over the spread of illiberal attitudes on campus, but that many are reluctant to speak up. The cause of that reluctance, he thinks, is twofold: Some liberal professors fear giving even inadvertent comfort to the right, especially with Trump in the White House and a Republican majority in Congress. Others, he argues, are intimidated by the bullying tactics of the far left.

That diagnosis rings true to David Bromwich, a professor of English at Yale. His 1992 book about the campus culture wars, Politics by Other Means (Yale University Press), is a withering assault on both traditionalists of the right and thought-policers of the left. (As John Silber wrote in a review, the book might have been called A Plague on Both Your Houses.) Asked how the current mood on elite campuses compares with that time, Bromwich says it’s at least as bad. "There is a horror of being associated with anything or anyone conservative," he says, calling it "a mark of the timidity of the academic personality in our time. It leads to a great deal of conformity, small acts of cowardice, and the voluntary self-suppression of ideas."

A week after Heterodox Academy began, Kate Manne, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell, wrote a defense of trigger warnings in The New York Times. She took specific aim at "the idea, suggested by Professor Haidt and others, that this considerate and reasonable practice feeds into a ‘culture of victimhood’ " and described Haidt’s view as "alarmist, if not completely implausible." Haidt responded on his blog, reiterating his objections to trigger warnings but adding that Manne’s efforts to shield her students from potentially upsetting material suggest that she’s a "caring teacher." Manne shot back on Twitter, accusing Haidt of "uncharitably interpreting and patronizing a younger female colleague" and making "stereotypical assumptions about teachers/professors you’ve not met, nor discussed their pedagogy with." Haidt was genuinely dumbfounded. He thought he was paying her a compliment: "But you discussed your pedagogy. I called you caring based on what you wrote."...

"When I went to Yale, in 1981, it said above the main gate ‘Lux et Veritas’: Light and Truth. We are here to find truth," Haidt says as he paces the stage at the Students for Liberty conference in Washington. "This is our heritage all the way back to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates." But the pursuit of truth is being supplanted by a new mission, he warns, the pursuit of social justice. He paraphrases Marx: "The point is not to understand the world; the point is to change it."

It’s human nature to make things sacred — people, places, books, ideas, Haidt says. "So what’s sacred at a university?" he asks. "Victims are sacred," he answers. And a victimhood culture offers only two ways to get prestige: Be a victim, or, if you can’t manage that, stand up for victims. How? "By punishing the hell out of anyone who in any way, shape, or form, even inadvertently, marginalizes a member of a victim class."

He clicks to reveal a slide titled "The Six Sacred Groups." "The Big 3" are Blacks, Women, LGBT. "The Other 3" are Latinos, Native Americans, Disability. The list of sacred victims, he says, is growing. Among the newly sacrosanct are Muslims, transgender, and Black Lives Matter. "I’m in no way saying these are not victims," Haidt says. "I’m not dismissing claims of systemic racism. I’m just pointing out that the quasi-religious conflicts we have on campus nowadays tend to revolve around these groups."

According to Haidt, the culture of victimhood is exacerbated by the arrival of an infantilized student body, especially on elite campuses. He says that cable television inaugurated an era in which news about crime filled the airwaves and magnified parental fears about the safety of their children. As a result, many of today’s college students haven’t been allowed to explore, face dangers, surmount them, and come back stronger. "Kids need thousands of hours of unsupervised time to learn how to live without their parents," he says, "so when they go off to college it’s not the first time they’re unsupervised. They’re not getting it anymore."

In October, Heterodox Academy released a Guide to Colleges that rates campuses on whether they’re conducive to free speech and diversity of thought...

At the top of the list is the University of Chicago, where the dean of students sent a letter to the Class of 2020 stating that the university does not condone safe spaces, trigger warnings, or disinviting controversial speakers. Near the bottom of the list is Brown University, where administrators have described social justice as a "bedrock commitment" and responded to student protests in 2015 with a pledge to invest $100 million to create a "just and inclusive campus."

Haidt hopes the rankings will lead to a schism between those universities committed to truth and those that regard social justice as the highest good, so each can go their own way and high school students would know more about the intellectual climate of the colleges they’re considering attending. To help force the issue, Heterodox Academy offers a model student-government resolution that activists can use to affirm their university’s commitment to free speech and intellectual diversity. In March, Northwestern University became the first — and thus far only — campus to pass such a resolution...

Haidt is fearful not only for the country but also for himself. His default intellectual style is provocation. He used to relish posing questions like, "List all the good things Hitler did," and he even invented a game, "Racist Jeopardy," in which he names a stereotype and asks students to identify the ethnic group it describes. "It was very uncomfortable," he says, adding that he no longer plays the game because he’s worried about running afoul of NYU’s bias-response team. He’s already been the subject of at least two student complaints.

"I’m used to skating on thin ice, but I knew how thick the ice was," he says. "Now I have no idea.""
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