This New Religion Is Causing an Existential Crisis at American Colleges and Universities, NYU Prof Says

Jonathan Haidt
Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership, based in the Business and Society Program of New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business discusses "The American University's New Assault on Free Speech" in a lecture organized by the Manhattan Institute in New York City on Monday May 23, 2016. |

This religion of fundamental social justice is so frightening, even liberals are worried about it. But they aren't speaking up, says Haidt, who describes himself as a libertarian.

"The great majority of people are really alarmed by what's happening. There is a small group on campus of illiberal people. The illiberal left against the liberal left. The liberal left is uncomfortable but has so far been silent," Haidt said.

It is this illiberalism on campus that has given rise to groups such as Black Lives Matter where "nobody can say no to them."

"No president in the first few months stood up to the protesters, the president of the United States, finally a few weeks ago stood up to them," Haidt said.

"This, I believe, is an existential crisis for our universities. Our universities simply cannot function if this keeps going, and the reason why is pretty obvious," Haidt explained.

"Human beings are incredibly irrational, biased, imperfect creatures. We are really, really bad at following the truth wherever it leads. The brilliance of some of our classical liberal institutions, especially science at the university, is that it institutionalized disconfirmation.

"We in science, we don't really see the truth unbiasedly. We each put out our models, our theories, we try our hardest to prove we are right. And other scientists say 'no, you didn't see, this is wrong' and then we have to defend it. That's the way it works, institutionalized disconfirmation. It has made us as a species as a culture vastly smarter than we could be if we were just individuals deciding things for ourselves," he continued.

"So science, this is very precious, universities are very precious. They only work if you have enormous protections for institutionalized disconfirmation. If I say something, if I publish something, I have to know I'm accountable for it because somebody, if I say something stupid or wrong, someone will challenge me and that is gone," he said.

In the current political and social climate said Haidt, disconfirmation has suffered.

"If you say something stupid or unsupported by the evidence, on one side politically, you can rest assured that no one will dare challenge you because they will be attacked. Conversely, if you say something which is true, backed by evidence and it points toward a conservative or libertarian conclusion, you can rest assured, you'll be challenged very harshly," Haidt explained.

"Now it doesn't mean you can't publish. Some of us who are writing unorthodox things we are getting published, it's just we have to try a lot harder. And so the net output of universities is warped, it's unbalanced, it's unrepresentative as a whole. It's untrue," he said. "So this is why I believe we have an existential crisis. If it keeps going the way it's going we might as well just shut them all down in 10 or 20 years because they will be worthless."

Haidt, however, doesn't think life will continue down this road for American academia pointing to a growing counterculture movement involving projects such as the Heterodox Academy.

Heterodox academy, where Haidt is a member, is a politically diverse group of social scientists and other scholars who want to improve their academic disciplines.

"We have all written about a particular problem: the loss or lack of 'viewpoint diversity.' It's what happens when everyone in a field shares the same political orientation and certain ideas become orthodoxy. We have come together to advocate for a more intellectually diverse and heterodox academy," the group explains.

Just this month, Haidt wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal on affirmative action arguing that there are better paths to racial justice in higher education.

He is banking on some top schools joining the counterculture movement which he believes will usher in a healthier kind of diversity that protects disconfirmation instead of silencing it.

"Our idea is, what if Buddha, Jesus and Martin Luther King were asked to come up with a diversity reading list. What would they pick? What would they want students to read before they engage with people who are different?" he asked.

"Why do you complain about the speck in your neighbor's eye when you do not see the plank in your own? Wouldn't that be a great thing for people to read before they arrive in college? How about Dale Carnegie? How to Win Friends and Influence People?" he continued.

"Given that diversity training does not work or backfires, American companies and universities spend billions of dollars a year, on something that doesn't work or makes things worse. We think there is a market for a radically different kind of diversity training," Haidt said. "And we can begin to disrupt this whole industry. So we are doing all these projects to use market forces to swamp the illiberals and basically take advantage of people's disgust with the current situation."

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