America has roughly 4500 institutions of higher education. In a majority of those institutions, there aren’t any students shouting down, sometimes violently, guest speakers. These widely-publicized events tend to occur in left-leaning parts of the country, most notably the Northeast and the Western seaboard. However, heightened levels of anxiety and depression within student populations is readily visible across the country. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt join us to discuss their theory, which is explained in great detail throughout their book The Coddling of the American Mind, of why this trend is occurring among the iGen generation and how parents, school administrators, and the students themselves can help mitigate its’ effects.
What is the justification that students use to oppose speakers, demand speech codes, and request trigger warning policies? Do students overuse the word “trauma”? What is the new kind of student activism and how is it toxic to educational institutions? How widespread is this issue? What is the mental health state of students who are attending college now, as part of the iGen generation? What role does social media play in this young “mental health crisis”?
The Coddling of the American Mind, article in the Atlantic, written by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, written by Jonathan Haidt
Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, written by Greg Lukianoff
Heterodox Academy website
Campus Freedom, Free Thoughts Episode
Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, Free Thoughts Episode
00:06 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus. Joining me today in the studio is Greg Lukianoff, an attorney and President of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and on the phone is Jonathan Haidt, the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership in NYU Stern School of Business. Together, they are the coauthors of, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Welcome to Free Thoughts, gentlemen.
00:31 Greg Lukianoff: Thanks for having us.
00:32 Jon Haidt: Thanks.
00:33 Trevor Burrus: I’d like to start with the odd pairing of a First Amendment lawyer and a psychologist end up writing a book together. So how did that happen?
00:43 Greg Lukianoff: Well, to make a long story short, some time around 2013 I noticed that suddenly… Students had always been the best constituency for free speech on campus. And I’d been working at FIRE since 2001. And almost overnight we saw students suddenly really opposing speakers, and demanding new speech codes, and demanding trigger warning policies, and microaggression policies. And it happened so quickly, I’ve talked to other friends who are pundits and that kind of stuff, I’m like, “What just happened?” Like, “What are we just get hit by?” Because they’d always been so good about this. And the thing that really made it distinct though was that their justification wasn’t… This is saying that this speaker here coming is offensive, or bigoted, or some other sort of reason that this is a despicable person, it was medicalized, and very suddenly people were arguing that it would be traumatic to have this person here, hearing this, having this person wouldn’t leave me feeling safe, possibly trigger me, lead to medical consequences. And I’m kind of a psychology hobbyist, I like to read lots of books about it, but I also personally have benefited tremendously from cognitive behavioral therapy.
01:56 Greg Lukianoff: And I was looking at this ideology that I’ve been thinking about for years, and thinking, “This isn’t what a psychologist would say. They wouldn’t say, if you’re afraid of something, by the way, hide from it as much as you can.” And so, I went and talked to Jon about this. Jon and I had just pretty recently become friends. We went to an Indian restaurant in Greenwich Village, I think. And I discussed the idea with him, and to my surprise and delight, ‘cause I’m a big fan of Jon’s work, he said, “Yeah, let’s write an article about it.” And this was back in 2014. So it’s as simple as that.
02:32 Trevor Burrus: And Jon, had you been thinking about from your field in psychology, it’s something I’ve thought about too, this sort of, not just in this student speech context, but the weaponization of psychological concepts to describe yourself when people casually say they have OCD or things like that. Is that something that you had been paying attention too, Jon?
02:50 Jon Haidt: Well, it’s unclear whether it’s weaponization or whether it is a change in their self-concept, and that they really believed it. I had just moved to NYU a couple years before, I spent my career 16 years teaching psychology at the University of Virginia. And only looking back on it now do I realize that all of my students at UVA were millennials. I taught the entire millennial generation. And when I moved to NYU, we thought the millennial generation was gonna go on for a number of additional years. We thought millennials were those born up until 2000 or so. But around 2014 I began to see students reacting very strongly to images, to words, I began hearing this new language of safety. So, when Greg told me that summer, summer 2014, about his idea, I thought it was really brilliant. I thought it was the only explanation I’d heard for this sudden change. And I looked at it because I study morality, so I look on it as a new moral order. It’s not that some people are bad or are trying to do something that varies, it’s that there’s a new way of looking at people and relationships, and it’s very confusing. It’s confusing to people who are older than about 30. So that’s what we set out to understand. And that’s what we laid out in much greater detail in our book.
04:08 Trevor Burrus: And that’s something I’ve noticed, not just in the OCD… Like using OCD and things like this. But the use of the word “trauma”, that’s been seemingly going up not just starting in 2013 or something. I’ve heard people using the word trauma seeming to overuse it for quite awhile, that things are traumatizing to them. That seems to be a stretching of the definition. And you say that definition has stretched, correct?
04:32 Jon Haidt: Well, that’s right. We draw heavily on an Australian psychologist, Nick Haslam, who wrote this really brilliant paper on concept creep and he shows how concepts in psychology have changed since the 1980s. Now, of course words change, concepts change, but what’s interesting he notes, is that they only move in one direction, and that is downward. That is, they become more and more permissive, and to allow more and more things in. And these are the concepts like bullying, addiction, trauma, bigotry, there’s a couple of others. So he knows that they move only down to take in more stuff.
05:08 Jon Haidt: And then I wrote a commentary on the paper in which I observed that they also move in one direction politically, that is they only move to the left, by which I mean, they only move in ways that allow people on the left to make a stronger claim about whatever it is they’re trying to do. So if you imagine being a prosecutor in court and you want to say that America is a matrix of oppression, or something like that, you would want to take in more and more victim, you’d want criteria to become weaker and weaker, but only for your side. So this is not necessarily something about the left versus right per se. My interpretation is that, as universities have become more and more homogeneous politically, it could just as well have happened in institutions on the right. But as universities have become more and more homogeneous politically, some of our research has been pressed into service or drawn into service to fight the broader culture war. And so using mental health criteria to fight political battles I think is partly what has happened. Now if that’s weaponization, well, I suppose I just made a case for it.
06:15 Greg Lukianoff: Well, like I said, I was a fan of Jon’s work before meeting him, and Righteous Mind is one of his great books.
06:24 Trevor Burrus: Don’t forget The Happiness Hypothesis. That’s also a great one too.
06:26 Greg Lukianoff: Actually Happiness Hypothesis was even more why I saw Jon out.
06:30 Jon Haidt: [06:30] ____ join this.
06:31 Greg Lukianoff: Of course, because it talks about meditation and the CBT, things I really believe in. I also just think it’s a great book in general but also Righteous Mind. And he talks about how if you look at the political spectrum, increasingly people on the left have almost a unipolar morality that’s all about the care ethic, that essentially anything that you can say that does harm to victims, that’s all that matters. And without sort of a balancing out of other moral foundations, I think it partially explains why it would tear away from that. But it also has the added benefit of creating something that I’ve called the perfect rhetorical fortress where essentially we’ve used an awful lot of IQ points, an awful lot of cognitive energy on campuses, even back when I was there in the ’90s, to figure out ways to not have to actually, to always win an argument by never getting to the argument.
07:22 Greg Lukianoff: Because if you can argue things like, you can argue privilege. When I was in law school, it was easy enough just to say, “Oh, you’re a conservative, I don’t have to listen to you.” And I feel ashamed that that was actually somewhat effective on me for a while. I admit that I didn’t read Thomas Sowell and Camille Paglia till much later. But now we’ve got this incredibly Byzantine system of ideas like punching down and privilege and trauma that really more or less allow you to never actually talk to anyone you disagree with if you don’t want to or at least disqualify them from having an opinion.
07:53 Jon Haidt: Yeah. Let me just add on to that to say that the use of those rhetorical strategies rather than addressing the argument is extremely important for understanding universities, because those strategies make sense in the public square where it’s one giant boxing match and you don’t really have to persuade your opponent. What you’re trying to do is show off for your team, motivate your team, you’re trying to inspire onlookers. But in universities, we’ve organized to do something very, very different. We’re not there to do a giant public relations campaign. We’re there to put people into dialogue with each other so that each one can contradict the confirmation bias of the other. As long as people are engaging in argument in good faith and really trying hard to find flaws in the argument, then the whole system works and it generates wisdom, and where I should say knowledge and truth that we couldn’t get at otherwise. But when a whole generation is learning to respond to arguments, not by picking them apart but by discrediting the speaker, basically they’re learning super advanced techniques of ad hominem argumentation. When that happens, it basically stops us from doing the work that we’re here to do.
09:02 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I went to Boulder in… It’s been about 20 years now, but Boulder was… We had that first wave of discussion of political correctness on campus in the ’90s and I started there in 1999, and I took a bunch of literary criticism classes. And I heard a bunch of these ideological concepts before they broke into the mainstream here. And I regarded them as extremely dangerous but somewhat confined within my postmodernist deconstruction professors and things. But I did have professors in law school, for example, tell me that Marxist feminist professor that her quote, she always used was, “You can’t fight an enemy that has outposts in your mind,” which is describing hegemony in the way words can work in your brain. You always have the, “You can’t fight the master’s house. Take down the master’s house with the master’s tools, ideas,” where they’re basically saying that the words are getting into your head and so changing your thought that you’re unable to think enlightened thoughts.
10:00 Trevor Burrus: And I told her one time that her line that you can’t fight an enemy with outposts in your mind was functionally not different than witchcraft. [laughter] That people with words have put a spell on people.
10:10 Greg Lukianoff: Right.
10:11 Trevor Burrus: Now, but that being said, if I believe that, and that was the kind of harm, I would absolutely wanna shut those speakers down for the same reason that religious people wanna shut down heretics. I mean, is that really what was happening here on the ideological side?
10:26 Greg Lukianoff: Oh, that… And that’s really one of the fun things about working with Jon. At one point during writing the book when he talks about this ideology being very much like a religion, which definitely from his own work made a lot of sense to me, I asked Jon like, “are you saying that it’s sort of like analogous to religion or virtually coming from the same place?” And he was like, “Well, actually it’s really, a lot of this really does seem to be taking the place of religion.” Am I saying that correctly, Jon?
10:50 Jon Haidt: Exactly. It’s not an analogy, it’s a homology. It’s using the exact same psychological structures. A lot of my work, and certainly in The Righteous Mind, was about how humans evolved as tribal creatures. We broke out of our small tiny groups by developing civilizations. When we do that, our primitive traditional religiosity, which is about worshipping rocks and trees while dancing around camp fires and painting your bodies…
11:14 Greg Lukianoff: That sounds awesome.
11:15 Jon Haidt: That’s what religion looks like.
11:17 Trevor Burrus: The Burning Man.
11:17 Jon Haidt: It’s very similar all around the world until groups take up agriculture. And then they develop larger gods that are punishing and moralistic. And so, my argument in The Righteous Mind was, we have to understand how we evolved to create a moral order which revolves around sacred objects. This is our big trick. This is how we’re able to cooperate in large groups that are not kin. Once you see that in religion, then you can take away the formal religion and you see the same stuff operating. So if you look at fraternity initiations. I was once on the radio talking about The Righteous Mind and I said, “I mean it could be anything. It could be like a beer keg,” and some guy calls in and says, “Well, actually at my fraternity, we had the right of the beer keg. We worship the beer keg.”
12:01 Jon Haidt: So, it’s very deep primitive stuff. It’s stuff that makes me like Carl Jung, the idea of archetypes. And so you see it in sports, you see it in politics, you can’t understand group action or political action unless you understand religion and there are more fundamentalist forms of religion that are quite toxic to those around and to those practicing it, and then there are much more benevolent forms of religion. Most sports doesn’t lead to soccer hooliganism, but in Britain somehow they’ve made it toxic and it does. Similarly, most student activism doesn’t lead to toxic outcomes but there is this new kind of student activism in which students get prestige precisely by calling other people out, mostly for word use. Most of the charges are about a single word, not even an argument. It’s usually about a single word. I don’t know. But very often about a single word. It’s basically blasphemy, it’s the psychology of blasphemy, has been imported into universities, which is the last place on Earth where we should have blasphemy laws.
13:01 Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, and that reminds me, the 2015 article that we wrote in The Atlantic, that was our first foray into this. This is actually when we co-authored an article also called The Coddling of the American Mind in The Atlantic, and we finished it in the summer of 2015, and I emphasize that because later on, people actually thought we were writing in response to the Black Lives Matter protest that hit about a hundred campuses in the fall of 2015. I’m a First Amendment lawyer, I’m the head of an organization that defends free speech rights, and has had great fun defending the rights of students. But the thing that made the protest in 2015 feel like such a mixed bag was on the one hand, students were overcoming apathy and they’re fighting for what they believe in and they’re exercising their free speech. But in too many cases, for me at least, they were also demanding new speech codes, they were demanding the Wesleyan Argus be shut down for running a single article that was critical of Black Lives Matter. There was the whole [14:01] ____ of course, and as we discussed in the book…
14:04 Trevor Burrus: That’s a thing at Yale, correct?
14:04 Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, exactly, sorry. That we discussed in the book is the very sad story of Dean Spellman. Was that at Claremont McKenna, Jon?
14:10 Jon Haidt: Yes, at Claremont McKenna.
14:11 Greg Lukianoff: At Claremont McKenna. And what’s so sad about that one is that it absolutely was someone trying to say something nice, someone trying to be compassionate and maybe they used the wrong way of saying it, but really got treated very much like a [14:24] ____ blasphemer.
14:29 Trevor Burrus: Now, on those examples that you’ve given throughout the book, some people have wondered and it’s an active discussion now that you see East Coast schools, often liberal arts colleges, some higher level colleges like Yale, this happening there, Berkeley, places where you might expect it, and those are very, very visible and we might be having some sort of bias in thinking that it’s more widespread than it actually is because we’ve seen some extremely high profile things. Do we have an idea of how widespread this actually is? If you go to, say Mississippi State University or some place in the south, are you gonna get as much of this stuff as you would in Yale?
15:07 Jon Haidt: Yeah, we do have some evidence on it. So when we started talking about this problem, Jeff Sachs, a political scientist in Canada wrote a Tweet storm looking at data challenging us and it was a very productive debate and I think what came out of it is the recognition that America’s 4500 institutions of higher education. And so if you go to the great majority of them, you wouldn’t see anything. There’re not protests, there’s nobody shouting anybody down. In fact, Sean Stevens, the Research Director at Heterodox Academy graphed out where the actual shout downs have taken place and they’re almost all in the northeast and the coastal strip of the West Coast. In other words, they’re only at progressive universities in very, very left-leaning parts of the country.
15:58 Jon Haidt: And this makes sense if you think about the social dynamics such that there’s a strong consensus about the moral order and everybody’s on one side, and it seems obvious, it seems just objectively true what is the right way to think and be. So if you go to most universities, you wouldn’t see anything happening in terms of shout down. On the other hand, on the other hand, right now I’m in Cleveland, I spoke yesterday at Case Western Reserve, it’s a STEM-based, mostly an engineering school as its background here in the Midwest and they have not had any of these shout downs, but they are having all the same problems that schools all over the country are with rising anxiety and depression.
16:42 Jon Haidt: Students increasingly unwilling to or having more difficulty with challenges and confrontation. So things seemed pretty healthy here. They are having these trends, and they’re working on them. We really tried in the book, not to foment a moral panic, not to say students are losing their minds, the generation is lost. What we can say is that the mental health crisis, it is a crisis especially for girls, is national and that cuts across races and religions and to some extent, social class. But the dramatic stuff that we write about the shout downs especially, that only happens mostly at elite schools in the northeast and the West Coast and Chicago.
17:23 Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, and one thing, putting my FIRE hat on but also pointing out the chapter where we talk about bureaucratization, corporatization of universities. Even though some of the more ideologically tinged, to say the least, things tend to happen at a lot of these elite colleges and also a school like Evergreen, I’m not really sure how you’d characterize Evergreen State University. But at other schools you still have the kind of challenges that FIRE has seen throughout our entire career where it’s just an administrator who might be afraid of a lawsuit or a regulation really clamping down. So the problems are, it’s not as if we’re saying that there’s no problem at these other schools, just it hasn’t been as self-righteously ideologically driven.
18:04 Greg Lukianoff: Now, we also recognize the possibility though that a lot of times these concepts drip down into the rest of the society. So I’m curious to see what the next five years look like.
18:14 Jon Haidt: Well, no. We’re actually seeing it happen already, since the book has come out, I’m getting a lot of email from principals at high schools and parents of high school students ‘cause they’re seeing these same trends that move towards describing words and ideas as safe versus dangerous, the idea that kids should not be forced to do things that are unpleasant as there was the big brouhaha a week or two ago, where students around the country are asking that they not be required to do public speaking because some students find that very anxiety provoking so therefore, we should eliminate the requirement. So it’s creeping down into high schools and it’s creeping out very quickly into the workplace, especially in companies that hire from these elite schools. So our book just got an Amazon review two days ago, which I’d like to read.
19:01 Jon Haidt: It’s short, and it’s very revealing. So somebody wrote, “I couldn’t understand why my new bright young workers kept running to HR for every little interpersonal problem, and why they refused to show up to meetings with the person who they thought offended them. This book explains a lot about those recent bad hires.” So I’m hearing this over and over again, that the people in their early 20s, they go into the corporate world, they overhear someone telling a joke, they see an image on someone’s screen, somebody uses a word, it’s often just a word, and they go right to HR, they don’t talk to the person, they don’t just ignore it, they go right to HR.
19:40 Trevor Burrus: And Greg, in your last book, you make the point which came out in ‘Unlearning Liberty’.
19:48 Greg Lukianoff: Unlearning Liberty.
19:49 Trevor Burrus: Came out in 2013, I wanna say.
19:50 Greg Lukianoff: 2012.
19:51 Trevor Burrus: 2012. And you’d express at that point that your biggest concern was, what would happen to these students when they go out into the world, right? And if they come up with these [20:01] ____ illiberal ideas and they move out into the world, but that was before the new onset of what you guys call iGen. So what is this? Jon mentioned it previously too, and you’d mentioned in the 2013. And there’s a difference between millennials in this generation called iGen, which is a term you take from another author.
20:22 Greg Lukianoff: Jean Twenge. Yeah.
20:22 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, who are the iGen generation?
20:25 Greg Lukianoff: IGen are people born 1995 or after, and basically Jean Twenge is a generational expert, that’s what her whole career has been, looking at difference between generations. And she saw a really dramatic discontinuity between millennials and people born after 1995. And that’s actually a really good way to figure out where a generation is starting to begin, is by looking at surveys and all that kind of stuff. In her book she thinks that a lot of the… And one thing that we found out that was really horrifying in the early research for the book was that while we had assumed that there was gonna be an increase in anxiety and depression on campuses, because like we argued in our original article, we’re teaching a generation the habits of anxious and depressed people, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re anxious and depressed, but when the numbers finally came in and when Jon looked at them, they were much, much worse.
21:14 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I just wanna read this. This is the stat of the book that made me audibly yell out at it when I was reading it. A 2016 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health using data from 139 colleges found it by the 2015/2016 school year, half of all students surveyed reported having attended counseling for mental health concerns. That is shocking. And did you see that too, Jon?
21:40 Jon Haidt: That’s nothing. [laughter] [21:42] ____ much for shocking stats. Because that could be just that this young generation is much more comfortable about talking about mental health.
21:52 Trevor Burrus: True.
21:52 Jon Haidt: That could be a good thing. So there was an article in the New York Times two weeks ago, by Richard Friedman, a psychiatrist who said, “Don’t worry, there’s no anxiety epidemic. Screens aren’t rotting your kids’ brains. Here’s the biggest survey done in 2012, shows no change.” Well yeah, in 2012 there was no change. And then he says, “And there are a couple of surveys that show that a recent increase, but those are just based on self-report and students are more comfortable talking about it. So it doesn’t mean anything.” Well, we thought about that long and hard, we looked really hard at the data, ‘cause we didn’t wanna foment a moral panic. And the two pieces of evidence that really convinced us that this is real and serious are a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found, it looked at hospital admissions.
22:35 Jon Haidt: These are kids who are admitted to hospital for harming their bodies to the point where they had to be hospitalized. They weren’t… It wasn’t fatal, and they often weren’t… They usually were not suicide attempts, but it’s cutting yourself with sharp objects, things like that. And the rates are up, they’re way, way up for girls ages 10 to 14, they’re up substantially for girls, 15 to 19, they’re not up for boys, and they’re not up for girls, over 20. So it is unique to iGen, to basically to kids who were teenagers when social media came out, or when they largely got on around 2010, 2011, 2012, is when there’s the big uptick. So hospital admissions for self-harm are way up and that is not self-report, and most alarmingly, suicide is up, and that’s for both sexes. So if you look at the last two years of data for boys and girls, teenage boys and girls, what we find is that the rate for boys is up 25% from the average of the first decade of this century, if you average 2001 to 2010, 25% up for boys. That is huge. The increase for girls is 70%. 7-0. So this is not an illusion of self-report, this is a tidal wave of anxiety and depression leading to self-harm, hospital admissions and suicide.
23:53 Greg Lukianoff: So one of the causal… So we talk about six causal threads, and we talk about anxiety and depression, but in two distinct chapters, one on polarization, which we also think is part of the reason why all of this is sped up. We think polarization, particularly echo chambers, really speed this up and reward tribalistic behavior. But social media does play a role in both speeding up polarization, but also for depression and anxiety. And we agree with Twenge that the numbers are quite convincing, that there’s a correlation there, but it just doesn’t explain enough of the variance for depression and anxiety, which is why we do actually assume that excessive social media use, particularly for these sort of social comparison websites, can be very harmful to particularly young people’s happiness. And the way I put it for people who look at me skeptically when I say this, I say, “Imagine being in the worst aspects of junior high school 24 hours a day forever.”
24:52 Greg Lukianoff: Does that sound nice to anybody? So those are…
24:55 Jon Haidt: You can’t even get away on weekends when you’re home with your parents.
24:57 Greg Lukianoff: And people don’t get, they’re still on their smartphones at 2 o’clock in the morning too, which doesn’t help. So those are the first two causal threads. Do you wanna talk about the other ones, Jon?
25:05 Jon Haidt: Yeah, sure. Just wait, before we get off this, I just… Lenore Skenazy, who wrote ‘Free-Range Kids’, she just sent me an amazing stat this morning from a survey just published in the UK, ‘cause UK is just about six months or a year behind us, they’re having the same events on campus.
25:19 Greg Lukianoff: I thought the time difference is more like six hours.
25:25 Jon Haidt: So they’re having the same issues of rising anxiety and depression among teenagers and especially girls. So here’s a survey that finds sharp decline in happiness of young women and girls, and nestled within all the statistics is this, “In other ways, however, girls’ lives appear to have contracted as their world moves online. In 2009, 69% of girls met friends at each other’s houses compared with 21% in 2018.” So think about that. In junior high school or early high school, you’d go over to a friend’s house, you’d go play, they don’t do that anymore, most of them do not after school. They see each other at school, when they go home they sit in their room and they’re on social media. So imagine what this does to developing social skills, imagine what this does in a world that is getting physically safer and safer, but kids are immersed more and more in an online world where anonymous people can make threats that are never acted on as far as I know, but are scary. So this is a big part of the problem.
26:28 Trevor Burrus: And so we talked of the six ways of leading up to this. We’re going backwards here, but I think it works. We’ll get to the three untruths. But if we set the stage with, “Here’s a generation and here’s what happened to them,” and then we bring them into college, we’ll get to that. So we have anxiety, depression, parenting practices, and play. Would you like to talk about that, Jon?
26:46 Jon Haidt: Sure. So the main thing we’re trying to explain is this rapid change in 2014 that Greg noticed, and that became really, really clear in the year after we published the Atlantic article. Why did things change so quickly? And we identified six causes. And so two of them are about changes in parenting. So one is paranoid parenting, that is the idea that the world’s dangerous for kids, and if my kids are ever outside without me or another designated adult watching them, they will be kidnapped, or at least there’s such a high risk of them being kidnapped that it is worth me not letting them out, it is worth me depriving them of freedom to remove this microscopic chance that they will be kidnapped.
27:31 Jon Haidt: And this happened because of cable TV, there were a few highly publicized killings of young children, Etan Patz and then Adam Walsh, especially. So in the ’80s that kind of gears up, but it’s not until the ’90s that the new idea came out that if you let your kids walk to school or play in a park, you’re a negligent parent. And it’s not until the early 2000s that we hear the first reports of parents being arrested because their kids were caught playing in a park unsupervised. So, the change in childhood comes in gradually in the 1990s. Kids learned ‘stranger danger’, the world is threatening, and so sure, they’re more afraid now, that’s part of it. So that’s the paranoid parenting. Related to that is the loss of free play. This was the most interesting and exciting thing that we learned, it was new to us.
28:23 Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, it was a really fun chapter to write.
28:24 Jon Haidt: It’s that, well mammals play, we all know that. I was walking through Washington Square Park the other day in New York City, and I was walking by the playground where all the toddlers played. It’s really cute to see them running around and screaming and rolling and tumbling and laughing, and then 100 yards further on there’s this small dog playground, and it was really cute to see the small dogs running and tumbling, rolling and playing and laughing. And you really see, “Wow. This is what mammals need to do. This is what young mammals need to do. They need to wrestle and play and run and test each other.” Mammals practice chasing games, play tag to prepare for either being prey or predators. So in all kinds of ways, play builds the mind, the human brain is designed to be completed long, long after birth and play is what completes that wiring.
29:08 Jon Haidt: Well, what happened in America and also the UK, it turns out, as we got more paranoid we wouldn’t let our kids out, and then we also went insane for early academics. We got this ridiculous idea that if our kids listen to Mozart they’ll be smarter, if our kids learn fractions in first grade, they’ll be smarter than if they wait till third grade. Let’s push everything earlier. Let’s see, what should we kick out? Well, recess and art, we don’t need those things, they won’t help you get into college. So, the loss of play, we believe, is one of the biggest reasons why kids who are play deprived find interpersonal conflicts very, very hard to resolve. They don’t have the skills, so they run to HR and then they refuse to come to the meeting where they have to face the person who made a joke.
29:49 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, and I love how you cite Steve Horwitz who’s a friend and has been on Free Thoughts before to talk about some of these things, and especially the difference between formal and informal play, and how it helps to… Well, you can create a basketball game or something. And this is what I did, and I imagine this is what Greg and Jon, you guys did too. You get a bunch of kids of different ages playing a game that’s unstructured without anyone supervising. It’s not Little League, it’s a pick-up baseball game, right?
30:13 Greg Lukianoff: Oh, sure, yeah.
30:14 Trevor Burrus: And you have to figure out how to adjust because there’s a six-year-old playing with some 10-year-olds, and you work on a way to work them into the game and make sure… And that’s all organic and that’s really, really good, and you can’t run to… Sometimes someone will run home to mom, which is what Jon was saying with HR ‘cause that’s the old saying, “Why don’t you run home to Mom and tell Mommy?” That’s a bad thing.
30:36 Greg Lukianoff: And that’s a rule violation.
30:37 Jon Haidt: You’re shamed for doing that. They’re not to do it. You learn to work it out.
30:40 Trevor Burrus: And now it seems to be what they’re doing a lot more.
30:45 Greg Lukianoff: Well, one of the things for me from a personal standpoint that was really interesting, actually, the chapters on parenting were too, I think for both of us, two of our favorite chapters to research and read. Partially ‘cause it was an opportunity for both to learn things that we didn’t necessarily know going in, and partially neither of us are parenting experts, we interviewed our friend Lenore Skenazy, we interviewed Erika Christakis, and Julie Lythcott-Haims who wrote a book called ‘How to Raise an Adult’. And the thing that really stuck in my head was Erika Christakis’ work is practically screaming, “Kids need unstructured time period, they need more of it and they need more unsupervised play,” and really hitting you over the head with how well established this is.
31:27 Greg Lukianoff: I have a nine-month-old and I have a nearly three-year-old. I live on the hill where it’s definitely a bastion of agro parents, and I’m like, “Wow. If this is really what we’re saying and what the research actually says, no parent I know is actually… They’re doing the exact opposite of all of this stuff,” which was really, really profound to me. So when I try to explain it to other parents in the preschool group they’re like, “Oh, okay, yeah, we need more unsupervised time. So, how do I help them do that?” I’m like, “No, no, that’s exactly the opposite of what we’re saying,” and it just isn’t sticking.
32:04 Trevor Burrus: Schedule two hours of unsupervised time between this period and this period, go forth and be fun.
32:09 Greg Lukianoff: Highly moderated by parents, of course.
32:11 Jon Haidt: No, but actually, that will be fine. If they scheduled it, it was called recess.
32:15 Greg Lukianoff: Right.
32:15 Trevor Burrus: True, true.
32:15 Jon Haidt: And the playground monitor was inside. So if someone gets hurt, you know where to go. But at my kid’s school, one of my kids go to New York City Public Schools, and there’s a playground monitor, it was right there, no running, someone could get hurt…
32:26 Greg Lukianoff: No running?
32:27 Jon Haidt: If anyone cries, he comes over. And so, what kids are learning, it’s called moral dependency. If there’s a conflict, they learn to be dependent that you have to go to the authority to work it out. And so this is exactly the opposite of how we would train young people for college, for democracy or for employment.
32:46 Trevor Burrus: So, you have put these causes together, paranoid parenting, lack of play, polarization, overly biased professors at university. That’s a contributing factor too. I think Jon, you touched on that and it seems to work into the religious example I made where one of the things about a religion that makes him look for heretics is that they’re quite convinced of how right they are.
33:15 Greg Lukianoff: Oh, yeah.
33:15 Trevor Burrus: Like Plymouth Colony, everyone in Plymouth Colony were pretty convinced that they were correct because they lived in a very homogeneous ideological framework.
33:24 Greg Lukianoff: Agnostics generally as a rule don’t burn at the stake non-agnostics.
33:29 Jon Haidt: Yeah. Well, that’s right. So if we take seriously the things we say about diversity, about how being exposed to diverse people and diverse viewpoints helps us think better because it challenges our confirmation bias, if we take that seriously, I think we have to see viewpoint diversity among the faculty as beneficial. Now the data on whether faculty corrupt or indoctrinate students is unclear. There’s not clear evidence that if you have a liberal faculty it’s gonna turn the students into liberals or vice versa. Young people are more influenced by their peers and by adults when it comes to what they believe.
34:07 Jon Haidt: But on the other hand, like with the story of The Princess and the Pea, if a Princess has never slept on a bed that was anything less than perfectly soft and smooth, a pea becomes intolerable. And similarly, if you’re a student at a school who has never encountered a conservative or conservative idea, or conservative challenge to what you believe from one of your professors, and then Ben Shapiro comes to campus or some conservative professor, they’re not so much [34:36] ____ professors. But if someone comes to your campus who’s espousing ideas that you have not encountered, it can be much more… Well, I’ll say painful if you’ve never encountered them. So, I think political diversity among the faculty is very beneficial to having a healthy intellectual climate. And as Greg said, agnostics don’t burn witches. If everybody is on one side, if there’s political purity, you’re just much more likely to have the kind of extreme stories that we document in the book.
35:05 Greg Lukianoff: Yeah, it becomes an environment that really rewards the true believer.
35:09 Trevor Burrus: Well, how much do you think that the backlash to this? ‘Cause I have said that if you go on to a campus and it’s obviously varies about in which department you’re in, and you have some of the numbers in the book, and you wanna ask a question like, “What if there are gender differences between men and women?” And there are some places where you’re not allowed to even ask… Some classes, let’s say, where you’re not allowed to ask that question, or you would feel very uncomfortable. It might make you upset just if you’re like, “Why can’t we talk about things?” And it might push you to more extreme thinkers who are provocateurs like Milo and Ben Shapiro and these conservative superstars who get a lot of credit for “owning the libs” is like the term. And they’re not being pushed. We’d like them to come to reasonable Cato products where we say, ‘cause we’re not out there just pushing buttons, but they might just get so mad that they can’t talk about things that they just look for the person who talks about it in your face as much as possible. And that’s not good either, ‘cause they’re getting, often a poisonous version of those ideas.
36:11 Greg Lukianoff: Well let’s bring us back to our causal link of what we call the polarization cycle, that sometimes I even call the polarization spiral, ‘cause I think it gets so out of control sometimes. My overall belief is that due to factors like social media and also the ability to increasingly… Cities get decentralized and people can move to counties that “better reflect their values”, that even… Let’s say higher education didn’t exist. I think we would be more polarized today than we were 30 years ago, no matter what, but higher education is the unique institution that should actually be able to make us more sophisticated, more open to the possibility we might be wrong, more accepting and understanding of people coming from different points of view. So, it’s an institution that has tremendous potential to actually ease and calm some of the polarization. But, tragically, I think it’s actually speeding it up.
37:02 Trevor Burrus: Now, can you start… We go on to the beginning here with the three untruths. So, after you put iGen, in particular, through some pretty dodgy parenting practices likely more… Things like this, you take them to college and they learn three untruths which is how you begin the book. The first one is the untruth of fragility. So, who would like to talk about that?
37:28 Jon Haidt: Oh, I’d like to take that one ‘cause that comes straight out of my first book, The Happiness Hypothesis, in which Chapter 4 is on the uses of adversity. It opens with the quote, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” so that’s Nietzsche. But it’s a great truth of it because it’s something that people have observed in all cultures. I have a great quote from Mencius, “When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work,” etcetera, etcetera. “So as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature and improve wherever he is incompetent.” So, what the sage is, east and west understood is that humans learn from experience, we have to have a lot of negative experiences in order to grow strong.
38:14 Jon Haidt: And if we deprive kids of those experiences, we weaken them. And so we go through the example of peanut allergies. The reason that peanut allergies have tripled, the rate of them has tripled between the 1990s and the present time, is precisely because we started protecting kids from exposure to peanuts, when in fact, their immune system needed that exposure. We’re doing the same thing with risk. We’ve made our playground safer. We’ve made everything so safe, we don’t give our kids the experiences they need to develop normal human resilience and toughness. So that’s why since it’s, again, it’s not the kids’ fault, we have overprotected them. Then they come to college and all those unpleasant moments that we all had in college, they become not unpleasant moments that you learn to get over or tolerate. They become reasons to go to a dean or file a complaint.
39:00 Trevor Burrus: And that includes the idea of microaggressions, which correct me if I’m wrong, Jon, most people who are trauma counselors would never tell you that the way you get over trauma, and Greg alluded to this earlier, is to hide yourself in a corner. If you came back from a war and fireworks give you PTSD, there’s ways of dealing with that to acculturate yourself to loud noises but they’ve gone for the exact opposite and that seems destructive.
39:28 Jon Haidt: Right. So, that’s the issue of trigger warnings, and that is… We talked to a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists about that, and they all agree that the way you get over fears and phobias is by systematic desensitization. You know, if you have a spider phobia, we’re not gonna throw a spider at you, but we’re gonna maybe write the word spider on a piece of paper and have you look at it. And if we’re gonna protect you from the word spider, well, your phobia is gonna just stay the same forever.
39:51 Greg Lukianoff: Or enlarge. Basically, you can go from having a fear of actual spiders to a state where this actually becomes so much part of your schema, so much part of your self-identity that you’re actually expanding the world of things you’re terrified in rather than shrinking it.
40:04 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. The untruth of emotional reasoning.
40:07 Greg Lukianoff: That’s me. The untruth of emotional reasoning is the one most closely tied to the original article that we wrote in 2015 because emotional reasoning is actually cognitive distortion. We tie a lot of this to CBT. This all comes from my personal experience of battling depression and really finding CBT to be this, not just wonderfully effective way of doing it but with this deep sort of philosophical resonance because it has aspects of Buddhism in it, and it has most directly aspects of stoic philosophy in it. What I was seeing on campus in the original article was that it was a constant statement of emotional states rather than argument [40:48] ____ and even the most basic one, of course, is that I’m offended means something has to be done. In CBT you learn that every time you feel something, you shouldn’t just greet it uncritically.
41:00 Greg Lukianoff: So, there’s a great quote by Susan David. She really boiled this down very well. “Emotions are information, not instructions.” You can learn tremendously from why you feel jealous or why you feel angry, but a lot of times what it’s actually telling you about the situation you’re in is much different than your instincts make it feel like. And the emotional reasoning, we talk a lot about how this can lead to distorted thinking and how this manifests distorted thinking, but we talk about this for example in the context of microaggressions, which you brought up earlier. Now, I always feel like I have to say microaggressions as a topic, I think it’s a wonderfully interesting academic topic that people should study because we do slight each other in unintentional ways. But teaching, once you put this into a policy, it starts looking really ridiculous because you have UC policies saying anyone qualified, I think the most qualified person should get the job. I think America is the land of opportunity, that’s what it looks like when you operationalize it by administrators.
41:55 Greg Lukianoff: But even just the practice of microaggressions, of actually looking for, to try to find out how someone slighted you, and it doesn’t matter what their intent is, is practically guaranteeing that people engaged in distorted thinking. And if you really want a diverse society from people from different countries, from different class backgrounds, from different regions, from different ages communicating with each other, the only way you can do that and not being a complete mess is have a principle of charity that you try to figure out where someone’s coming from not just the way their words make you feel in the least charitable light that you could paint them. But unfortunately, if you train people to really be hypersensitive to microaggressions, you’re also dooming that person to constantly feel like they’re in a horrible state surrounded by evil people, when it actually might be more closer to a group of well-meaning people who are just sometimes have faux pas or communicate differently.
42:47 Jon Haidt: That’s right, so if we simply told students coming in, we’re gonna have a lot of misunderstandings here. Diversity is hard, we have to work on it. There are gonna be a lot of faux pas. People are gonna make a lot of mistakes. Let’s try to make fewer of them. Here are some things that you shouldn’t say or things you shouldn’t do. So if we call them faux pas and if we reserve the word “microaggression” for things that are truly very small acts of aggression then there wouldn’t be this problem. But it’s as Greg said, it’s once you get this new doctrine that it’s an impact that matters, not intent. You’re opening the gates of hell, you’re basically telling people, “Go with your feelings, if you feel offended, you were attacked. And by the way, here are a lot of ways that you can now feel offended by phrases that you didn’t know were offensive when you arrived.”
43:29 Trevor Burrus: I really like the principle of charity, which is in the cognitive behavioral therapy stuff, which is incredible stuff and extremely effective from what I understand. You personally, Greg, of course, but you can see the studies about its effectiveness. But the principle of charity is what we’re often missing, it goes into polarization stuff. I’ve been accused in my job here of being so charitable to my opponents that I should just actually realize that some of them are disingenuous hacks, is what one of my former colleagues said.
43:56 Greg Lukianoff: You are motivated by evil!
43:57 Trevor Burrus: Exactly. And that gets us into the third one, the untruth of us versus them, which is the sort of Manichean struggle that a lot of people think that they’re involved in.
44:06 Jon Haidt: Yeah, I’ll take that one ‘cause that’s so close to the Righteous Mind. So much of my work has been on how we are by nature tribal and prone to post hoc reasoning in the service of our social and political goals. So that’s what you see in the public square, there are a lot of reasons why polarization and cross-partisan hostility have been going up and up and up in American society since the 1980s or 1990s. So with that as the context for university life, when students come in, it would be very easy to play up the tribalism or turn it down and obviously, what we should be trying to do if we’re trying to create diverse societies that are inclusive and welcoming is turn it down and encourage people to treat each other as individuals, to not be prejudiced against groups. That’s basic social psychology, that’s basic common sense that that’s what we should be doing if we want this diversity project to work, we want diversity to be beneficial. But in some parts, it just doesn’t happen at all schools certainly, but often students are trained in intersectionality.
45:10 Jon Haidt: Now intersectionality, the idea that people’s identities are at the intersections of many different issues and axes: Race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etcetera. The idea itself is perfectly good and all sorts of things interact in the social sciences and in the human mind. But the way it is actually taught, it encourages students to look around and to make very quick judgments of other people, to judge their level of privilege. You can judge by their skin color, you can judge by their sex, you can judge by how they speak and these judgements are not just what category you’re in, they’re moral judgments because oppressors are bad and victims are good. And so, if we are encouraging students to make quick judgments of others, moral judgements of others based on the group membership and then we put them together and expect them to create a diverse welcoming open environment, there’s no way that can work. So we should be in so many ways, what we should be doing on college campuses, I think is the opposite of what we do. We have a real challenge to create welcoming and inclusive environments.
46:13 Jon Haidt: There’s an enormous payoff. As Greg said, we are the premier institution that should be exposing people to diversity and teaching them, giving the chance to find it to be beneficial and exciting and prepare people for life in a divided democracy. There’s so much we could be doing, but in part because we have bad ideas circulating that give us policies that are almost never backed by evidence. So many of the policies we use in socializing students and running orientation, so much of the diversity training is not backed by any evidence that it does anything good, but it’s done in part for good intent and in part because, how did you say it? These people are badly motivated. No, that’s not true. But it’s done for I think with an ideological agenda in part, and that ends up harming the very students that we’re trying to help.
47:03 Jon Haidt: Let’s end it by telling people where they can go if they’re concerned about this problem. First, buy two copies of The Coddling of the American Mind, one for you and one for the principal of your kid’s school or the president of your university or whatever. If the leaders of educational institutions get copies of the book along with the message, what are you doing about this problem? No, I may change that, that’s more dependency. What can we do about this problem? Then I think things will begin to change. Parents should all go to letgrow.org, it’s a group started by Lenore Skenazy and me and Peter Gray and Daniel Shuchman to help parents organize and find ways to give their kids more independence. Greg, where else should people go for information?
47:46 Greg Lukianoff: They should go to the fire.org to look at things that universities can do to fight for free speech on campus, to get rid of their speech codes, to have orientations that explain freedom of speech and what to do when professors and students actually get in trouble for what they say.
48:02 Trevor Burrus: And Heterodox Academy to help figure out how to teach both sides of an issue.
48:06 Jon Haidt: That’s right. At Heterodox Academy, we have all kinds of resources that universities can use to create an environment in which people can engage with those who differ from them. So, we have a lot of essays, a lot of resources for improving institutions of education.
48:24 Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, please rate and review us on iTunes. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.