Jonathan Haidt on *The Coddling of the American Mind*
A psychology professor diagnoses the unhealthy mentality brewing on America’s college campuses
“This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” — Thomas Jefferson, upon founding the University of Virginia.
A new vernacular has emerged on college campuses over the past several years — safe spaces, “microaggressions,” triggers warnings and so on. While conservatives may find these terms easy to mock, and many dismiss them as the grievances of a few spoiled children, professors from across the political spectrum have voiced concerns about a pathological victimhood mentality that underlies their usage.
The first sign that things were getting bad was a 2015 article published in Vox titled, “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.” Next was the Halloween brouhaha at Yale, in which a professor was shouted down by a student mob after defending his wife’s email to the student body urging them to be less sensitive about costumes that “appropriate” the markers of certain cultures. Later came the mobs — often violent — calling for heads of figures like Charles Murray, Heather Mac Donald, and Milo Yiannopoulis for voicing controversial opinions.
It doesn’t take a sophisticated analyst to see that wearing a sombrero on Halloween is not comparable to physical violence. However, much of the criticism of the “special snowflakes” by the right has only thrown more fuel on the fire. It has created a vicious cycle, whereby the anti-free speech left sees the inflammatory language as further proof that certain voices must not be heard. Once that point is granted, it’s easy to continually shrink the boundaries of acceptable speech. While there are some who may wish to inflict emotional pain on over-sensitive college students, the vast majority of professors and guest speakers who have been silenced have had good intentions — namely to share their knowledge and opinions in an environment where the ideas can be challenged and discussed in the open.
NYU psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has attempted to give a platform for all truth-seekers with his Heterodox Academy — a group of academics dedicated to increasing “viewpoint diversity.” The platform functions as something of a “safe space” amid the increasing hostility to free exchange of ideas on campus. Haidt’s latest book The Coddling of the American Mind (co-authored with Greg Lukianoff of The FIRE) goes beyond the mockery and intentionally inflammatory speech directed at the small subset of college students who are most visibly outraged by political incorrectness. He applies principles of psychology to understand what drives the urge to suppress free speech and shows how this is precisely the wrong way for triggered young adults to handle their anxiety.
Amazon.com: the coddling of the american mind, greg lukianoff and jonathan haidt
Amazon.com: the coddling of the american mind, greg lukianoff and jonathan haidt
Amazon.com: the coddling of the american mind, greg lukianoff and jonathan haidtwww.amazon.com
Equal parts pro-liberal philosophy and behavioral therapy, Haidt and Lukianoff’s book lays out the paradox of anxiety, and how our efforts to shield ourselves from negative ideas and emotions makes us less able to cope with them. They say that blame-seeking, or “vindictive protectiveness,” re-labels well-intentioned people as “aggressors,” and is having a disastrous effect on people’s mental health. They back it up with data, too, showing how the iGeneration now entering their college years is seeing skyrocketing rates of severe anxiety as a result of having been shielded by adults from real life.
A New York Times review of the book wonders if our cultural obsession with safety could spell the “Downfall of Democracy.” With stakes this high, we need more thinkers like Haidt — and more conversations that bring hard questions and ugly truths to the surface where they can be debated, studied, and understood by the next generation of politicians, professionals, and thought leaders.
Jonathan Haidt joined the show of ideas — not attitude — on Sunday (9/9) from 8–9am PACIFIC. He and Bob analyzed how well our top schools stack up to the Jeffersonian conception of the university as a place to fearlessly pursue the truth, and talk about how students can better prepare themselves mentally in this important quest.
Share the link with any students beginning their freshman year, or continuing in their education at a school where these issues are being worked out in real-time.
iGen: The Infantilization of a Generation
Bob Zadek: This morning I will share an hour with one of my very special private tutors. Jonathan doesn’t know that he has been my private tutor, but there are several public figures who have points of view or knowledge that is so important to me — and it should be to everybody — that I absorb everything that I can. I listen to their podcasts, I read their writing, and I read their blogs. I watch them when they are being interviewed by others. Jonathan Haidt, this morning’s guest, is one of that small group of my private tutors.
Jonathan wasn’t aware of it, but he has helped me understand so much. Jonathan has written with Greg Lukianoff — a guest on my show several times — a very important book entitled The Coddling of the American Mind. The book followed up on an article in The Atlantic that has been said to be the most widely-read article in the history of the publication entitled, “How Trigger Warnings are Hurting Mental Health on Campus.” Jonathan writes about how students are arriving on college campuses ill-prepared to learn and process adverse points of view. This has already had and will continue to have profound implications for both the mental health of that generation, for the mental health of future generations, and for the political health of our country.
Jonathan, welcome to the show this morning, and for being so generous with your knowledge to help me understand so much about the world around me.
Jonathan Haidt: That is a red carpet rollout. Hello Bob, thanks so much for having me.
Bob Zadek: Now Jonathan, your writing and a lot of your attention these days has been directed to a phenomenon that seems to me to have sprung into life — leaping from Athena’s temple. It didn’t exist at all before. Nobody wrote about it or mentioned it — perhaps Lenore Skenazy observed it a bit with her writing and work on free-range kids — but then boom: it appeared on college campuses and now news about it and articles about it are impossible to avoid. Tell us about the phenomenon you write about. In your opinion, how did it become so robust so quickly?
Jonathan Haidt: In 2013 to 2014, Greg Lukianoff my coauthor and the President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, had been working since around the year 2000 to push back against “speech codes” and all the restrictions on speech that Universities often put on students. He was used to the problem being the administrators, who were over-protective and treated students as though they were fragile and had to be protected from this and that.
Suddenly, in 2013 to 2014, Greg noticed for the first time that students were asking to be protected from this or that. They would argue that this idea or book or speaker is not just wrong but dangerous, and if they are allowed to speak it will cause people to be traumatized. What was new was the medicalization of it. The idea was that these students were fragile and that adults had to protect the students from these threats.
In 2015 we wrote “The Coddling of the American Mind.” At the time, it was the the fourth or fifth most widely circulated article in The Atlantic’s history, at least on online. In that article we analyzed what was going on, but we didn’t have the space or time to go into where it came from — because of course it couldn’t have just appeared from out of nowhere. Our book, also called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, we show six different trends or causal threads stretching back to the 1980’s in how we were raising kids that meant that the kids born after 1995 — the iGen or Gen-Z. When that generation shows up on campus, around 2013, we get these new ideas, so they didn’t spring from out of nowhere, but for those of us working on college campuses, we thought we had finally come to understand the millennials and then we get hit by a new generation which has very different thoughts and needs.
Bob Zadek: This started after 1995. What happened in 1995?
Jonathan Haidt: When you look at generational differences, it is not that the world changed the year they were born, but rather that the world changed during their critical or sensitive periods of development. If you think about what it was like if you were born in 1980 or ’82 — even though there was a crime wave that only began to end in the mid 1990’s — we let our kids outside. They played in groups without the supervision of adults. Then we got cable TV in the early 1980’s, there are a few high profile abductions, and we see images of missing kids everywhere. We get the idea that things are so dangerous that if we let our kids go out unsupervised they are going to get snatched.
It isn’t really until the 1990’s that we have the idea that kids must always be supervised. It’s not until the early 2000s that we hear the first report of parents being arrested because their kids were found playing in a park unsupervised. The kids who were born after 1995 were overprotective and over-educated early. The business of childhood is play. Kids need to play to develop social skills. In the nineties we got this stupid idea that if you expose your kids to Mozart in the womb they will be smarter.
Now that has been completely debunked, but the idea was that if we just cram more and more classical music and math and reading into the early years, that this is somehow good for kids. This is completely wrong, but the upper-middle class — where people were just desperate to get their kids into college, as college became increasingly competitive — bought on to this idea.
The point is just that with the best of intentions, adults changed childhood for kids in the late 1990’s and into the 2000’s. Because the children had been deprived of what they most needed, which is thousands of hours of free play and unsupervised time getting into arguments and getting out of them and falling down and getting back up, and hurting themselves and getting themselves home on their own without being picked up — essentially all the things that are part of a normal childhood, we tried to take them out for the benefit of the children. But overprotection is harmful.
Bob Zadek: You mentioned one strong causal feature is the desire of parents to get their kids into elite colleges so they can get fabulous jobs or whatever their motivation is. Not every parent and not every child is suited to or even aspires to get into an “elite college.” By the way, I reject the concept of “elite.” Therefore, doesn’t the phenomenon of over-protecting your child to prepare them for college the moment they leave the womb, only describe a very small minority of all the youngsters who were brought into the world in the United States? Why is the phenomenon limited to a certain socio-economic class and not the country at large?
The Epidemic of “Concerted Cultivation”
Jonathan Haidt: That’s a good question. Our elite colleges are dominated by the children of the top one percent. So you might think that this is just a problem of the kids being groomed to go to the Ivy Leagues. So we did a lot of research on this. Two books that were particularly helpful were Unequal Childhoods by the sociologist Annette Lareau and Our Kids by the political scientist Robert Putnam. They both observed that the line is not between the one percent and everyone else — it is between the top third and the bottom third. So, the top-third of parenting is what Laurea called “concerted cultivation.” This isn’t just the top one percent. This is basically the middle class and upper-middle class. The job of the adult is to help the children grow. They are focused on education and never hit or spank their kids.
Whereas the bottom third is much more of the working class and kids born into poverty. There is a lot more spanking and a lot more strictness. These parents have “natural growth parenting.” Kids will grow up to be grownups. You have to protect them from certain things like harm and crime, but otherwise you leave them to play and you leave them to do their own thing. And this is healthier. But the problem is that kids born in the bottom third are exposed to a lot more trauma, violence, and family instability. So they have a very different set of challenges.
The minority of them who go onto a four-year college have a very different psychological makeup. They have got their own problems. The upper-middle class, which is exposed to very little trauma comparatively speaking, is the one that has been mostly overprotected. So it is not just the top one percent. Our four-year colleges are filled with kids who have been raised with this “concerted cultivation” idea. And while the concerted cultivation is probably good for their mathematical and reading skills, it often comes at the expense of their social skills. This is one reason why depression, anxiety, suicide, and self-harm rates have been skyrocketing since 2011. Another reason is social media, but we will get to that.
Bob Zadek: “Skyrocketing” is one of the most common phrases the media uses, followed by “epidemic.” Is that too dramatic a concept to use?
Jonathan Haidt: The short answer is no, it is not, but I don’t want to be alarmist, so let me set a constraints here. The first is that the problems we are talking about on campuses are not happening on most college campuses. What I mean is, there are 4,500 institutions of higher education in America. Most of them are two-year or are non-residential. At most schools, none of this dramatic stuff — the trigger warnings, safe spaces, the shutting down of speech and speakers, etc. and most schools, none of that is happening. But if you look at the top 50 or 100 — especially those in the Northeast or along the West Coast where you are — these problems do seem to be found at the great majority of those schools.
We don’t know how far down the list this goes, and it is changing very quickly. So it might be spreading quite rapidly at other schools. We don’t really know.
Most kids are doing fine.
Most kids are perfectly happy.
Most kids go to college and want to learn.
So, I definitely don’t want to give the impression that there has been an invasion of the body snatchers and that this new generation has lost its mind and are all fragile. That is not true. At the same time there is a new social dynamic among the youngest generation caused by overprotection and social media — this new way of relating that they fell into is really bad for girls especially.
Let me give you a couple of numbers here. I think “epidemic” is the proper word for teenage girls mental health. For boys it might be accurate, but it’s a little stronger — a little too much perhaps. Depression and anxiety rates are way up. But some people say, “Oh, well that’s just self report. The kids are saying they are depressed and that is just because they are so comfortable with the psychotherapy language.”
Well, Greg and I took those objections very seriously and we were convinced that the graphs showing skyrocketing rates for girls especially are correct, because here is the rate for suicide. I took the average from federal data at the center for disease control. The rates for suicide were pretty stable in the early 2000s. For boys, the number who kill themselves each year was 11.9 per 100,000. This begins going up around 2010 to 2011, and by 2016–2017 the rate is 14.8 per 100,000 — an increase of 25%. Boys’ suicide rate is up 25% which is huge. That is a lot of dead boys. That is a lot of tragedy.
For girls, it used to be 2.9 per 100,000 in the 2000s. Girls make more attempts at suicide, but they use reversible methods, so the girl rate is lower than the boys. For the last couple of years it has been 5 per 100,000 — so from 2.9 to 5. That’s an increase of 70 percent. What do you think, is a 70% increase in suicide for teenage girls in this country is an “epidemic?” Do you think it is something to be alarmed about?
The Danger of Social Media and “Call Out Culture”
Bob Zadek: Has the world become meaner? So, the victims haven’t changed, but the environment has changed, and has in effect become psychologically a more dangerous place? Or, as you say in your book, has the sensitivity increased so that there is an inability to cope with the same level of danger?
Jonathan Haidt: I often hear the objection “Well, but the world is so much harder and meaner and more dangerous and there are school shootings!” Yes, school shootings are a new threat, although until a year ago, those were still very few and far between. After Parkland, now I think kids are really scared. But these problems began around 2011 and 2012. They are much more closely related to social media than to real threats in the world. Let’s look at the big picture here. You sent me the link about Simon and Garfunkel who went to your high school. In the class notes there, they were talking about the nuclear war drills.
Your generation and my generation grew up really feeling fearing the annihilation of all life on earth. And while we were fearing that, there was a hell of a lot of crime, We really were in danger of being mugged and beaten. So the world has gotten amazingly safe. The rates of death for children have plummeted. Children are so safe these days. Bullying is down. The world is objectively vastly safer and there is much less to worry about than they did in the past. The only difference is the Internet.
The question is, are kids right to have a fearful approach to life because of the Internet? What is it that happened in 1995? Nothing. What happened is as these kids were growing up, Facebook, opens up to the public. This is 2006. So these kids are 11 years old. The iPhone comes out in 2007. By 2009 and 2010 most of them have smartphones. So, by 2009 and 2010, when they are 15 or 16, they are immersed in social media. This changes their social situation. The girls in particular are exposed to much more bullying and social comparison.
The boys, as any parent knows, will use their iPhones to play video games all day long. It turns out that video games are not actually that harmful. You join up with your friends and you kill other groups of friends. That actually is not so bad for boys to practice, as long as it is virtual. But for girls, it is a lot of social comparison — and that is very painful to teenage girls, especially for younger teenage girls. And so that is the other big piece of the puzzle. Why did things change so quickly on college campuses in 2014 or so? Because the first members of iGen arrived, and their childhoods had been changed in ways we still don’t understand by immersing them in the giant experiment of social media.
Bob Zadek: While I was practicing for a nuclear attack in public school, I didn’t feel threatened. I didn’t think it was very real. I even had to have dog tags so that my body could be identified if I was burned beyond recognition. That’s what I wore every day in public school. But I wasn’t very frightened. I didn’t think it was going to happen. But I was told that if the atom bomb went off I would be pretty safe, as long as I was under my desk. It wasn’t that threatening, and while there was a lot of crime, I didn’t think it was going to happen to me anyway, so we weren’t fearful.
We are looking into the phenomenon on some American college campuses where students arrive and are apparently ill-prepared to deal with conflict. They bring somewhat exaggerated fears and anxieties to the campuses. The anxiety is truly felt, as Jonathan pointed out. It can be measured by the objective fact of the increase in suicide rates and visits to mental health professionals. So, it is not a manufactured phenomenon. It is a real phenomenon. Jonathan has explained to us before the break how, in his opinion, we got here.
Tell us what it’s like on college campuses where this phenomenon on the East and West coast colleges is observed, both for the professors and for the students. What does that tell us about what we can expect when this cohort of college students assume positions of power in our society, whether it be political, law enforcement, or in business?
Jonathan Haidt: The key thing to keep your eye on is that it is not that individuals are so different, although the suicide, anxiety, and depression rates are up, it is that their fears about speech and words are different. This is for very good reason because the consequences of mis-speaking are very large because of social media.
When you and I were in college, in the eighties, you would say something stupid in a class and you would feel embarrassed, but there was very little chance that it going to ruin your life or your reputation. Whereas with kids born after 1995 who were raised with social media, there is an unlimited downside. If you say one wrong word, it could go viral among your friends and could even make it to Fox News, or to one of the sites that try to humiliate universities.
I will give you some examples of this. For one, professors, and I found this too, it is harder to get students to talk in a seminar class, especially if it is about anything controversial. They are much more defensive. Here’s a couple of anecdotes. The woman who runs Heterodox Academy, a organization that I co-founded to promote viewpoint diversity in the academy — she was a professor at Harvey Mudd College. A student came in to talk to her and he was talking about how “that would be a good idea because that would kill two birds with…” and he put his hand over his mouth.
So she said, “What were you going to say? Kill two birds with one stone?”
And he nodded and she said, “Well, why won’t you say that?”
And he said, “well, that is a violent phrase.”
There is a real hypersensitivity about things like that. The spectacular things we see like the protests and the calls for faculty to be fired often revolve around a single word. Somebody objects to a word. So, what we have now is what students call a “call-out” culture. I’ll read you a little passage from the book.
A student at Smith College in Massachusetts says, “During my first days at Smith, I witnessed countless conversations that consisted of one person telling the other person that their opinion was wrong. The word ‘offensive’ was almost always included. Within a few short weeks, members of my freshman class had quickly assimilated to this new way of non thinking. They could soon detect a politically incorrect view and call the person out on their mistake. I began to voice my opinion less often to avoid being berated and judged by a community that claims to represent the free expression of ideas. I learned, along with every other student, to walk on eggshells for a fear that I may say something offensive. That is the social norm here.” And she’s writing about Smith in 2014.
In 2015 that call-out culture that spread much more rapidly around the country. I would say that is everywhere to some extent. So students are much more defensive, and much more afraid of disagreeing with the dominant view. The nature of college as a free place with free-flowing discussion where you can be provocative and can challenge the dominant people or ideas is weaker than it was just four or five years ago.
The Importance of Experience and Exposure
Bob Zadek: This is so strange because for many college students, including myself when I was in college, you get to experience something beyond the immediate neighborhood. To think that that opportunity to learn from all of the mainstream and not-so mainstream people you are thrust together with quite by accident (it is all random who you’re sitting next to in class) and to be denied the benefits of that has to have a profound long-term effect on openness to new ideas and even understanding of anybody who is not at all like you are. It is the lack of understanding that you are being deprived of.
Jonathan Haidt: That’s right. I think the immune system is a very good metaphor for us to talk about here. We opened the book with the story of how peanut allergies are going up. When my son started preschool, the school went on and on about all the things we couldn’t bring to school because some kids might have peanut allergies. We couldn’t bring dried fruit or anything because it might have been processed in a factory that produced peanuts. As we were doing the research for the book, we discovered that the reason why peanut allergies have gotten so much more prevalent since the 1990’s is that in the 1990’s we started protecting kids from peanuts. So, the immune system has to be exposed to all kinds of dirt, germs, bacteria, parasitic worms, and all kinds of food, and in that way it learns what it should react to and what it should not react to.
Because we began to be over-protective (there were a few kids with peanut allergies but they were very rare), their immune systems were less likely to learn. Their immune system has not learned that peanut proteins are not harmful and therefore they overreact. In the same way, for example, they are not exposed to teasing and criticism and hurtful words. So now if someone teases us or has a critical word, we don’t have an allergic reaction. We have a negative reaction. I’m afraid that what we are doing by protecting our kids so much, even from exclusion (in my daughter’s a public school here in New York City, kids are not allowed to exclude each other on the playground).
If we don’t give them practice in these things, then if they are excluded in any way in college, it will be much more painful than had they had some practice in that. So in so many ways, we are over-preparing our kids for the academic side of college while we are leaving them unprepared for the experiences they need to have their social systems working properly.
We argue in the book, and in an essay in the New York Times last week, that this has very serious ramifications for democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville, when he traveled in 1831 to our country, marveled at how good we were at the art of association. In France it would be done by the King. But in America they form a committee or they form an association to put on a play or to build a hospital or to start a library.
He marveled at how we could do it ourselves, and how we do not need authorities above us. This attitude is the secret of our successful experiment in democracy. In 1931, it was not at all clear that this experiment would work, but De Tocqueville was very optimistic.
Well, given that we are now preventing our kids from practicing for freedom until they’re 14 or 15, and even then we over-supervise them, we should expect that when they graduate from college and they have to deal with people who are different, and they have to solve some problem without appeal to authority, they are likely to be less skillful at it and more likely to call for the involvement of authority, such as law enforcement or attorneys who will sue for them. I think we are going to see that no matter how bad things are now, it might get a lot worse when the current generation is given the responsibility for guiding us.
An “Inability to Cope with Freedom”
Bob Zadek: In an interview that I heard you participate in, you said that students have to be taught to cope with freedom — to cope with liberty. It is not just a piece of cake. We have learned that when repressive societies have democracy imposed upon them too quickly, they don’t adjust and they don’t like it. We have learned that in communist countries, when communism is replaced by a more open society, many of the older members of society yearned for the good old days. They simply were unable to cope with the responsibilities, both for themselves and for their society at large. So when you use that phrase, it struck me as being the core of what we are talking about. So explain the need to learn how to cope with freedom.
Jonathan Haidt: So you said kids need to be taught to cope with freedom. I would just change that to say that we can’t teach them directly. The art of association and the art of freedom is one that you must develop with practice. Now you can have good role models. Certainly adults have a role to play. Peter Gray, who is a developmental psychologist at Boston College, has written a great deal on the importance of free play, and he points out that the best kind of play is unsupervised play outdoors in mixed age groups. What do kids do? You know, there are a bunch of kids in a neighborhood. They are in a backyard, or there is a park or the score. They have to decide what to do.
No one says, “This is what we’re doing. Go over there.” You can’t do that in play. You can’t order people around and play. It has to be voluntary. So everyone has to be very sensitive to what everyone else is thinking. They have to look for signs of agreement or disagreement. Somehow a game is chosen, and if anyone doesn’t want to play, they can leave. Then the rules have to be chosen. Now, there are general rules, but maybe there’s a variation. Can you throw the ball underhand or overhand? They have to decide all the variations of the rules. They have to pick teams. That might be painful for the kid who was picked last, but he has to learn to deal with it. When they’re playing, they might recognize that, you know, Bobby’s little brother is only seven, so you can’t pitch the ball so hard to him.
So you have to adjust. These are the skills of association. As soon as you put a coach in there, or two coaches and two teams, now it’s not voluntary, and now you can’t quit. You might learn baseball, but you don’t learn the social skills. So freeplay is absolutely essential for the development of the social skills of freedom and democracy, and we have systematically deprived our kids of it. If you look at the research on on how children spend their time and where they play, the data is very clear. Kids used to have a lot of time for free play. Now they have very little. The majority of kids in this country have much less time for free play than they ever did. They are spending much more time supervised by adults being coached, taught, spending time in the organized activities that they are being driven to by an adult.
Big Government and Infantilization: A Vicious Cycle
Bob Zadek: This psychological and and to some degree political phenomenon is relatively new in the span of human experience. To what extent does its vibrancy and growth have to do with government embracing it” We have an extensive government endorsement of this behavior going back to the Obama administration and the “Dear Colleague” letter in 2011, urging colleges to be more aggressive in protecting women. But it was expanded beyond that, going to the Child Protective Services, criminalizing a child’s parents when the child was walking alone off the parent’s property, without being in plain sight of the parents. We have had government embracing this. This generation is looking for outside protection — not being able to find the protection within the strength of their own psychology. So, how much has government been the petri dish — the fertilizer — to give this more life than it would otherwise have?
Jonathan Haidt: In the middle of the book we have six chapters talking about six different causal threads, and the rise of bureaucracy is one of the six threads. So you have to look at the big picture here. Family size used to be very large in that people had a lot of kids, and the kids would play outside. That’s the way things were for a long, long time. Then we have several things happening all at once. After World War II, we have rising prosperity. Around the world, when you have rising prosperity and rising female employment and education, you have declining family size. So as family size shrinks, parents are investing all of their eggs in one basket. They’re much more focused on getting that one or those two kids into college.
A lot of things are happening to make parents more overprotective. Along comes the government. It’s not that the government has these big evil ideas. It’s that government and bureaucracy are subject not to a logic of what’s most effective, but to a logic of “cover your ass.” So, there is a need for child protective services, but if they don’t act on a certain case, they can get in trouble for having missed a case. So, they tend to be over-reactive. We get this social norm where if you see a seven-year-old kid walking down the street you think, “Oh my God, he is going to get abducted.” I’d better call the police.
For a lot of these cases you see a kid in a car. There is an 11-year-old child left in the car because her mother said, “I’m going into CVS to pick up this prescription. Do you want to come? Or do you want to sit here and keep listening to your iPhone?”
And the kid says, “I’ll keep listening.”
So she says, okay. The mother goes in and before she knows it the police had been called — and while she wasn’t put in jail, she had to go through weeks and weeks of bureaucratic investigation just because she let her 11 year old sitting in a car. When I was 11, my sisters and I at that age, we started babysitting.
And now the idea is that kids that age need babysitters. That was not caused by government, but once that social norm of incredible overprotection and underestimation of kids’ abilities occurs, government responds by punishing this behavior. And then once you can be arrested for letting your kids outside to play, parents really stop letting their kids out.
So, government does play a role in the feedback loop that makes things more severe. In colleges, as you pointed out, Title IX — the purpose of which was to create educational equality by gender — led to a legal creep and concept creep to the point where if anything isn’t 50/50 by gender, somebody can charge gender discrimination. So colleges have to do all sorts of things. They have to cook the books to try to make it seem as though they’ve got a 50/50 breakdown in sports. All kinds of shenanigans start getting played out once government came in and made a heavy-handed rule.
Predictions and Solutions
Bob Zadek: Is this passing? Is this faddish, or is this permanent? And what concrete solutions are there? What do you hope will happen to stem the tide, if you will?
Jonathan Haidt: There’s no one cause here and almost all of the trends are irreversible.
Social media is not going away.
Political polarization is not going away.
The rise in competitiveness to get kids into college is not going away.
So, I think that if we don’t do things are going to get worse. Depression rates are going to go up, and conflict on campus is going to increase. I think we have a real problem here now. I think our political system is in big trouble. Polarization will get worse. I don’t think we’re going to make much progress in there. We have to adapt ourselves and our institutions, and corporations, and universities for life in a time of incredible political polarization, fake news, and outrage stories all over the place. Two areas that give me hope are that parents and teachers are now realizing that something has gone very wrong and they are looking for ways to change. College presidents in the last year or two have said their job has become impossible.
They never know what blow-up is going to greet them when they wake up in the morning. They open their email and they find out something horrible happened in the dining hall. One group objected to it. Now it’s in the newspaper! Their job has gotten very, very difficult. They, too, are looking for change. I think I am most hopeful about change in child rearing. I would urge all of your listeners to go to letgrow.org. It’s a site started by Lenore Skenazy who wrote the book Free Range Kids. She is the apostle of letting kids actually have the experiences they need in order to grow up. So lots of good ideas there for how to give kids more free play, how to help them meet up in a park, how to help your school give more recess, especially before and after school.
There are lots of great ideas out there. Getting over the paranoid parenting is hard to do on your own, but if you and the other parents in your community agree on, say, limits on Internet time, then it is much easier to limit your kids’ Internet time. I put on a program that limits my family to one or two hours a day. My son, who is 12, has friends who don’t have it, so it is hard for him. But if a whole community does it and recognizes the damage of unrestricted social media and the Internet, things would be improved. We’re going to see some positive changes in parenting. There are a lot of ideas in the book.
When we talk about colleges, there are some simple ideas. Every university should pass what’s called the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression, in which the university says, “Our job is to provide a platform on which people can make their case.” They do not take sides in arguments. So the universities need to stand up for free inquiry. They need to say they are not political places. People are free to talk about politics as much as they want, but they’re not going to force the university to take sides. There’s a lot that can be done at orientations. This applies to companies as well. I urge you to go to openmindplatform.org. It’s a program that I, and Caroline Mel, and a few other people developed to basically teach moral psychology skills for talking about politics and other divisive issues, so that those discussions actually bring light, not just heat.
Bob Zadek: I urge everybody to pay attention to Jonathan’s suggestions lest we not have a next generation of Navy Seals to serve us. It is very Bob-centric, but I want people to protect me and I want them to not be fearful.