Comparing higher education in America to the Titanic is a risky move when you’re speaking to a crowd of college students and professors, but that’s exactly what Jonathan Haidt did Thursday evening at Arizona State University.
Referring to what he views as an alarming decline in diversity of viewpoints on college campuses across the nation, the New York Times best-selling author of “The Righteous Mind” said, “This is an extremely dangerous situation for higher education. American higher education could be a sinking ship.”
Haidt visited ASU’s Tempe campus to contribute to an ongoing discussion about free speech on campus with his talk, “America's Escalating Outrage: Why Is it Happening, What Does It Do to Colleges and How Can We Reverse It?”
The talk marked the final event of the fall 2017 semester series “Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity in Higher Education and American Society,” sponsored by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, and co-sponsored by the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
The series continues Jan. 26, 2018, with a visit from Robby P. George (Princeton University) and Cornel West (Harvard University) for a dialogue about free speech.
Haidt, a social psychologist and the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, conducts research on morality, its emotional foundations, cultural variations and developmental course.
“There’s been a sea change in the academy in the last two or three years,” he told the audience Thursday. “It’s like someone reached in and changed the way we interact with each other.”
The ratio of professors who identify as left- vs. right-leaning has skyrocketed in recent years, with a 2016 poll putting it at 17 to 1. According to Haidt, that’s “a terrible state of affairs” as it affects research and civil discourse.
When you’re not challenged by different viewpoints, he said, “You get stupid. You get lazy. You believe things dogmatically.”
The co-founder of Heterodox Academy, “a politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists and other scholars who want to improve … academic disciplines and universities,” Haidt said the trend on college campuses is a reflection of the culture war that has dominated American politics of late.
“America had the weirdest political season in history,” he said. And it all began around 2014, thanks in large part to social media and the ease with which fake news and propaganda flow there. And as incendiary as those headlines can be, we love to read them — it’s neurological.
“The more angry you are, the more pleasing it is to read fake news,” even if you might doubt it, Haidt said. This all goes back to fundamental human nature. We’ve evolved to be tribal, to align with one side or another. We see it most obviously in the passionate sports fan.
But sometimes passion can be dangerous. As passions rise, Haidt explained, so does the ability to believe the worst about the other side. What has resulted in America is a deeply divided nation, in which both sides believe so fiercely in their convictions that they view the other side as not just wrong but fundamentally evil.
That division has reared its ugly head in academic institutions, which have become so left-leaning that even professors who identify as liberal report feeling as though they have to walk on eggshells so as not to offend students lest they cry, “Microaggression!”
“That is one of the worst ideas ever to come out of psychology,” Haidt said. “It has no scientific validity.”
What’s worse, it creates an environment where nobody learns anything.
“What is a safe space?” he continued. “It’s a way of saying, ‘No collisions, because that would hurt people.’ No, it helps them grow. Without collisions, what are you doing in college?”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. Haidt believes there are things those in academia can do to foster an environment where students are taken out of their comfort zone and challenged to think in order to grow. Namely, welcome and seek out viewpoint diversity and don’t be so quick to judge.
“Give the most charitable reading of what others say and do,” he said. “This is what’s disappeared from the classroom. Don’t look for ways to be offended. If we do that, we can actually talk to each other.”
Haidt ended his talk with an invitation to visit his website, yourmorals.org, where you can take a survey to get insight into your own sense of morality, and you can take the “outrage reduction pledge”: 1) I will give less offense 2) I will take less offense 3) I will pass on less offense.
Video by Jamie Ell/ASU Now
Top photo: Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business, talks about political discord within society at ASU's Student Pavilion on Thursday. Haidt says that as passions rise, groups believe the opposing sides to be getting worse and worse. The solution is to encourage listening and understanding opposing viewpoints. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now