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Essential Video: Jonathan Haidt Helps You Choose the Right University

December 27, 2015

by J. Andrew Zalucky

Jonathan Haidt

2015 was a big year for scandals and protests on college campuses. It seemed like every week there was another instance of students demanding a “safe space” from potentially dangerous and exclusionary events and guest speakers. If not, there were calls for “trigger warnings” for works of literature (even Ovid’s Metamorphoses in one instance). How do we sort all of this out?

First of all, let’s remember one thing, there are literally hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States. Many of the most outlandish cases have been isolated incidents at the Ivy League, not a widespread contagion across the entire country. Though it’s easy to laugh at the current generation of college kids and smear them as “fragile” and “entitled,” this would make the mistake of letting the most extreme and hypersensitive students speak for everyone.

However, this doesn’t mean that the renewed surge of political correctness (or “identity politics,” or even “the regressive left” as some call it) isn’t a problem. The primary problem being that, by saying certain groups need special protection from certain words or media, you are actually being profoundly patronizing and condescending. One could argue in fact, that to push for separate spaces and trigger warnings for people of oppressed or marginalized groups is to actually reinforce their marginalization and otherness, as this implies that they are not fit to participate in a free and open society.

And it also encourages a paranoid attitude among young adults that significantly lowers the standard for what counts as offensive, marginalizing and exclusionary to mean well…almost anything at this point. For one thing, this is actually very bad for the left, as Freddie deBoer shows in this insightful article. But on the other hand, the attempt to safeguard student’s mental health at every turn (effectively infantalizing them) may actually be detrimental to their health. As an article in The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” details (emphasis my own):

If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.

Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.

I strongly urge you to read the whole thing.

I’d also direct you to the video below, where one of its authors, Jonathan Haidt, advises a group of high school students on how to pick the right university. Haidt, a social scientist and academic (he teaches at NYU) has been on the forefront of the debate around speech codes, “microagressions” and trigger warnings. He also runs an excellent site called Heterodox Academy, a journal dedicated to intellectual diversity on college campuses.

As will quickly become apparent, the presentation is tongue-in-cheek. But Haidt’s point should become clear right away, that students need to be strengthened so that they can face the world with confidence, not coddled so that they cower from the world in fear.


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