Notes from a talk by Jonathan Haidt
52 percent of young liberal white females need mental health treatment
I recently listened to a talk by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a major figure in the tribe of non-tribal intellectuals. Look him up if you are not familiar with him. His book The Righteous Mind is a must-read, as is The Coddling of the American Mind, which he co-authored with Greg Lukianoff. I confess, though, that I have not read Coddling, although I have listened to several events at which one or both of the authors spoke about it.
Based on my notes
Haidt began this talk by suggesting that the most fundamental question humans have faced is “approach or avoid?” Back in our evolutionary past, the people who answered that question correctly survived and passed along their genes. Those who didn’t, didn’t.
In any given situation, we tend to adopt one of two mindsets: discover or defend. With the discover mindset, we explore possibilities. We approach novel ideas. With the defend mindset, we resist anything out of the ordinary. We avoid novel ideas.
Until very recently, students at colleges and universities operated with the discover mindset. College was a time to explore ideas and to take intellectual risks. A college embodied three characteristics: a “telos” of seeking truth; an institution with this telos as its mission; and the discover mindset among students and faculty.
But suddenly, around 2014, students entered college with a defend mindset. They started to demand trigger warnings and safe spaces, in order to not have to deal with ideas that struck them as threatening. Over the next few years, this evolved into “cancel culture,” which involved shutting down unwanted speech and intimidating others into silence.
This sudden shift to a defend mindset was correlated with a sharp increase in depression and anxiety among young people, particularly those born after 1996, especially girls. It seems compelling to blame this on cell phones and social media. These came into wide use among teenagers between 2009 and 2011.
Students of this new generation were so anxious that college appeared to them as a threat rather than an opportunity. The new student culture was focused on how words made them feel rather than the ideas that words express. By 2016, faculty felt that they were walking on eggshells: one offending remark could cause an uproar.
As these young people entered the corporate world, they took their defend mindset with them. They saw the world in binary terms, of oppressors and oppressed. At the New York Times, the use of the expression “power structures” and related phrases jumped measurably. Popularizers of Critical Race Theory, such as Ibrahim X. Kendi and Robin DeAngelo, achieved prominence.
The theories of intersectionality were simplified and adapted to create an ideology in which people with sufficient “victim” identities were inherently good, while others were inherently bad. Straight white males were the most inherently evil, but white females were the most psychologically affected. Haidt cited a recent study that found that 52 percent of young white left-leaning females have been diagnosed with mental illness. Blacks, Hispanics, males, and older white women have not seen the same surge in anxiety and depression.
The dismal atmosphere at colleges has worked its way down into the top prep schools and other high schools. This is in part because the schools of education that train teachers are overwhelmingly on the left and marinated in CRT.
What can educators do to bring the discover mindset back on campus? They need to emphasize the telos of seeking truth, not social justice. They need to point out that CRT and its neo-racism are divisive, which serves neither truth-seeking nor social justice.
Administrators should not give in to panic when a group complains about someone’ speech. They should instead have a slow process for adjudicating such complaints. With a slow process, the storm may blow over without administrators having to punish anyone or issue apologetic pronouncements.
Educators should should complexify conflicts. Train students not to reduce everything to power dynamics.
A few remarks of my own
Haidt is a social psychologist, and I respect his analysis in that realm. But I think that the problems that trouble the academy are more multidimensional. It’s more than just a straight line from the iPhone/Twitter/Facebook to anxiety/depression to the defend mindset.
In my view, colleges did a poor job of working through the process of expanding enrollment for women and minorities. As a result, I think that the prospects for recovering their “telos” of truth-seeking are much more remote than Haidt would like to believe.
In the 1970s, the dominant strain of feminism was one which said that women could function in a “man’s world” if given the chance. But another strain, which holds a negative view of male culture, seems to predominate today. In the process of emasculating university culture, some of the values that undergird the truth-seeking “telos” have faded.
Affirmative action also has been corrosive. If the proportion of black high school students who are academically prepared for college were close to the proportion of white students who were so prepared, then affirmative action would be an appropriate vehicle for expanding opportunity for black students.
But the proportion of black high school students who are prepared for college is somewhat less than the proportion of whites. Colleges deal with this by lowering admissions standards for black applicants. Among other harms, this damages the many black students who are well prepared, because they arrive on campus with their qualifications suspect. Most college freshman arrive with a natural tendency to be nervous about whether they can “hack it.” They do not need to face additional doubts based on their skin color.
Fifty years ago, colleges created departments of “Black Studies” and “Women’s Studies.” Faculty in these departments wanted to be considered the equal of older departments. They accepted the standards of rigor in the traditional disciplines.
Today, the roles are reversed. Instead of faculty in the traditional disciplines imposing standards on the “____ studies” departments, it is the “____ studies” departments criticizing the traditional disciplines. The latter are on the defensive over the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The psychological effects of social media that Haidt emphasizes are challenging enough. But I am afraid that the academy is plagued by more difficult and longstanding structural problems.