Look at college campuses today—trigger warnings, “safe spaces,” speech muzzled, speech threatened—and one must ask: why? Why are so many students threatened by a speech? Why are so many campus conversations today ones that end with a fist? Why are students so eager to suppress alternative points of view?
One of the brighter scholars addressing these questions is Jonathan Haidt, who teaches at New York University’s business school. He’s a busy man. He’s not just an author, most recently of The Coddling of the American Mind (co-written with Greg Lukianoff). He’s also the creator and organizer of Heterodox Academy, a coalition of people connected with universities in some way (professors, administrators, graduate students) supporting free speech on campus. And he also heads Ethical Systems a group of scholars connected to business schools who are coming up with ways to help business executives deal with ethical questions.
All of Haidt’s ventures have a common theme, which Brian Gallagher (who is the communications director for Ethical Systems) explores in a long interview in the science magazine Nautilus.
The interview answers all sorts of questions about Haidt’s thinking and scholarship, but what seems to tie all of Haidt’s ideas together is this: binary ways of thinking—left vs. right, Trump vs. Marx, the forces of light versus the forces of darkness—aren’t accurate ways to view the world. The world, he argues, is much more complicated than simple binary distinctions make them out to be.
For example, he notes that the New York Times has announced a policy where half the letters published in the newspaper will be by women. But men write three-quarter of the letters to newspapers, in part because men “like to put themselves out in public and show off” more often than women do. As a result, he says that the Times’s policy is unfair and “most Americans think it unfair” because the Times should first look at the ideas in a letter and not the author’s gender.
Haidt sees many professors on campus, particularly in what he calls “grievance studies departments” (which he carefully doesn’t name) as teaching this sort of dualism—“We’re going to teach you to see men, maleness, masculinity as bad, everyone else as good. White is bad, everybody else is good. Straight is bad, everyone else is good.”
“This is Manichaeism,” Haidt says. “This is our tendency to dualistic thinking.”
Tied in with this dualism, according to Haidt, are departments in campus administrations “that have no empirical support,” such as “mandatory diversity training, more ethnic identity centers, bias response teams so that anybody can report anybody else anonymously.” While these might sound good to some people, Heidt says, “there’s no evidence that they’ll make a more inclusive, open, trusting environment.”
“In every bathroom at NYU, there are signs telling students how to report me anonymously if I say something that they find offensive. That means I can’t take chances, I can’t tell jokes, I can’t trust them, even though most of them are great. But if one student in the class takes offense to one thing I say it could mire me in weeks and weeks of bureaucratic difficulty. So I don’t take chances”
But the dualism Haidt sees in college he also sees in political life. He says he wrote The Righteous Mind (2004) “to help the Democrats win.” But he found that, as a liberal, reading “the best conservative writing”—Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott, Thomas Sowell—“I realized, ‘Wow, you actually need to expose yourselves to critics, to people who start from a different position.”
“So I consider myself a centrist,” Haidt says, “because I am committed to the idea that you have to be listening to both sides.”
“It doesn’t mean that the answer is always in the middle. It’s not. Sometimes the left is correct, sometimes the right is correct. But if you start from an a priori position that our side is right, their side is evil and I’m not going to listen to their arguments, you’re guaranteed to get it wrong.”
What can philanthropists do to promote this centrism at colleges?
One organization Haidt likes (and has spoken to) is the SNF Agora Institute, which was founded at Johns Hopkins with an eight-figure grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The institute brings in speakers and has courses, many based on the great classic Greek and Roman philosophers of antiquity. They apparently have faculty specifically on their staff, and have hired Yascha Mounk, a moderately renowned political scientist, to be on their faculty.
But if students are to be exposed to conservative and libertarian ideas, they need to have professors on campuses who are recognized as being on the right, who are treated with respect, and who teach alternative viewpoints.
I recently attended a panel on free speech on college campuses moderated by my fellow Philanthropy Daily contributor Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Here I thought Steve Hayward, my long-time friend and a political scientist at the University of California (Berkeley), made an important point. Look at conservatives in the humanities and social sciences. Where are the assistant professors and postdocs who are going to be the rising conservative voices in history, English, political science, psychology, and sociology?
They’re not there for many reasons. First is the Ph.D. glut, a surplus enhanced by the steady shrinking of humanities departments. But author Zachary Karabell in his book What’s College For? made another important point—namely that until a professor gets tenure, she has to do what her graduate advisors say—and most of those senior professors controlling careers are leftists. In Karabell’s view, once a professor gets tenure at 45, they’re usually too burned out to be an independent voice.
So a good place for funders looking to make a difference in schools is to support organizations that help young scholars become independent thinkers. The Institute for Humane Studies helps graduate students and younger professors and has recently reorganized to be more of an academic organization and less of a think tank. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute helps more conservative scholars and provides multiple graduate fellowships to promising graduate students in the liberal arts.
Give to those two organizations and you’ll be doing your bit to increase intellectual diversity on college campuses.
 Steve Hayward also bought my first book, Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds, which the Pacific Research Institute published.