by James A. Bacon
Jonathan Haidt is one of the most important public intellectuals in America today. If you’re not familiar with his work, you need to be. You’ll get a chance to hear him when he comes to the University of Virginia February 8 as a guest of The Jefferson Council.
The social psychologist (and former UVA professor) gained national attention in 2012 with the publication of his book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” which asks the question, why can’t we all get along? In America, liberals and conservatives hew to different sides of six fundamental moral realms such as Fairness/Cheating and Liberty/Oppression, he argues. Differing moral sentiments translate into different worldviews, which inform different political positions. Moral intuitions are the primary driver, and reason follows mainly as a means to justify those intuitions. Though an old-fashioned liberal who has confessed to having never voted for a Republican for president, Haidt eschewed demonizing those who think differently. Liberals and conservatives alike, he said, are prone to group thinking, rationalizing their intuitions, and confirmation bias (seeking data that confirms their worldviews while ignoring data that doesn’t).
February 8, 2024, 6:30 p.m.
Nau Hall Auditorium
His next book, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” had an even greater impact. Co-writing with Greg Lukianoff in 2018, he investigated the rise of what he politely terms “safety culture” — others might call it the snowflake phenomenon — on college campuses. He attributes the fragility of college kids today to hovering parents, the sheltering of kids from risk and adversity, and above all the harmful effects of social media. College culture magnifies students’ sense of vulnerability by creating safe spaces and disciplining people for microaggressions. These cultural trends combine to create an unprecedented level of anxiety and depression among our youth.
Building off his work in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Haidt has written a new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” which is scheduled for release in late March. The nature of childhood has changed in modern society, he argues. In generations past, children enjoyed more independent play. He identifies how the new “phone-based childhood” interferes with social and neurological development and engenders sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, addiction, loneliness, social contagion, and social comparison. While the incidence of mental illness has increased across the board, the rise has been most marked among girls. Boys, though far less inclined to anxiety and depression, are retreating into the virtual world with worrisome consequences.
Amid his teaching and writing, Haidt found time in 2015 to cofound the Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit group dedicated to correcting the decline of intellectual diversity in higher education and promoting the principles of open inquiry and constructive disagreement. The lack of such diversity, the co-founders contended, affected the quality of academic research. The organization claims “thousands” of faculty, staff and students nationally. The Heterodox chapter at UVA has more than 40 faculty and staff as members.
As a co-founder of the Heterodox Academy, Haidt was an early and incisive critic of higher education’s drift toward wokeness. A year-and-a-half ago he wrote an essay, “When Truth and Social Justice Collide, Choose Truth.” Universities, he said, have only one “telos,” or fundamental purpose: the pursuit of knowledge and truth. The movement to elevate social justice to a second telos has put truth and social justice into conflict. As a result, universities are becoming ungovernable, and Americans’ public trust in them has plummeted. The country, he wrote, is “far down the road to political and institutional collapse.”
In that essay, Haidt described how the imposition of social-justice ideology compromised his own search for the truth. Scheduled to attend the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), he was informed of a new rule: In order to present research at the conference, all social psychologists were required to submit a statement explaining how their submission advanced “the equity, inclusion, and anti-racism goals of SPSP.”
“Most academic work has nothing to do with diversity,” he wrote, “so these mandatory statements force many academics to betray their quasi-fiduciary duty to the truth by spinning, twisting, or otherwise inventing some tenuous connection to diversity. … Every psychologist who wants to present at the most important convention in our field must now say how their work advances anti-racism” — anti-racism as defined by Ibram X. Kendi, that is.
Rather than comply, Haidt resigned from the Society. “I am especially dubious of the wisdom of making an academic organization more overtly political in its mission, especially in the midst of a raging culture war, when trust in universities is plummeting,” he said.
The Jefferson Council invites students, faculty, staff and friends of the university to hear Haidt’s latest thinking. Space is limited. Register soon.