The age of outrage

Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of The Righteous Mind, among other books. He is also cofounder of Heterodox Academy and is a voice of sanity in the asylum of higher education. Steve Hayward wrote about him for us here.

On November 15 Professor Haidt gave the Manhattan Institute’s thirty-first annual Walter B. Wriston lecture (video below): “The Age of Outrage: What It’s Doing to Our Universities, and Our Country.” I’ve cued the video to begin with Professor Haidt’s lecture, which is preceded by Paul Singer’s introduction.

Professor Haidt covers a lot of ground in the lecture. You won’t agree with everything he has to say. I don’t. But this is an honest discussion of an important subject by a thoughtful scholar. Despite the pessimism expressed in the excerpt below, Professor Haidt itemizes optimistic notes in the last 10 minutes or so of his lecture.

I can’t find a full text of the lecture online, but I learned of it via this excerpt in Friday’s Wall Street Journal:

Today’s identity politics . . . teaches the exact opposite of what we think a liberal arts education should be. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.

But what do we do now? Many students are given just one lens—power. Here’s your lens, kid. Look at everything through this lens. Everything is about power. Every situation is analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult. It’s a fundamentalist religion. It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety and intellectual impotence. . . .

Let’s return to Jefferson’s vision: “For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error as long as reason is left free to combat it.” Well if Jefferson were to return today and tour our nation’s top universities, he would be shocked at the culture of fear, the tolerance of error, and the shackles placed on reason. . . .

I am actually pessimistic about America’s future, but let me state very clearly that I have very low confidence in my pessimism. Because until now, it has always been wrong to bet against America, and it’s probably wrong to do so now. My libertarian friends constantly remind me that people are resourceful—this is what many people forget. When problems get more severe, people get more inventive, and that is actually happening right now.

I wanted to draw your attentio to Professor Haidt’s lecture in the hope you might have time to take it in today.

NOTE: I wrote Professor Haidt to double check the text, which I thought read incorrectly following his quotation of Jefferson. He has responded: “I did indeed mean ‘tolerance of error.’ On campus today, we knowingly say, and tolerate, falsehoods. But I see why you changed it, because Jefferson was advocating tolerating error so long as reason is left free. I hadn’t noticed the possible contradiction; had been trying to paint a picture of a fearful, error prone academy.”

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