Jon Haidt on a new book, the silence of university leaders, self-censorship, and America’s loss of confidence in higher education

October 19, 2023 • 9:30 am

UPDATE: See a positive review of this new book (as well as a related one by Yacha Mounk) at The Economist.

This week, Jon Haidt’s short Substack piece (click on title screenshot below to read it), does four things: he introduces a new book, explains why University leaders remained largely silent (or waited a few days) before giving public reactions to the Hamas attacks on Israel,  gives some of Jon’s thoughts about why self-censorship has spread beyond the campuses, and shows data indicating that Americans are losing confidence in higher education. I’ll give a brief bit on each of these, with Jon’s words indented.

a. The new book.  The Canceling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott, came out just two days ago, is selling well on Amazon, and has gotten good preliminary reviews. The title is a mirror of Lukianoff’s previous book with Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, which was quite influential (see my summary here and be sure to read the authors’ Three Great Untruths that have infused modern college students).  This new book is largely about “cancel culture.” Haidt wrote the foreword.

Lukianoff is of course the president of FIRE, and Rikki Schlott is an author, journalist, and podcaster (one of her podcasts on cancel culture is here).

Haidt on the book:

An important book comes out today: The Canceling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff (my co-author for The Coddling of the American Mind) and Rikki Schlott. Greg and Rikki explain the long history of efforts to silence people by threatening them with social death, unemployment, or physical harm for questioning orthodox beliefs or proposing heterodox theories. They show how today’s version of cancel culture, which first arose on American college campuses around 2014, spread out from universities to many other fields including journalism, medicine, psychotherapy, and even the hard sciences. Greg and Rikki show the devastating effects of cancel culture on institutions that require viewpoint diversity to function, with universities being the pre-eminent example. (Cancel culture causes the condition I called “structural stupidity” in a 2022 Atlantic article.) They show how cancel culture takes a different form on the right, running through legislatures that try to dictate what can’t or must be taught in K-12 schools and even at universities.

It’s definitely a book I’ll be reading. A cute gif from Schlott’s site:

b. The curious silence of university leaders. 

The Canceling was a darn good book when I read a draft last spring, in order to write the Foreword for it. It’s an even better book now that the world has been treated to the shocking spectacle of so many university presidents remaining silent, or issuing only vague and cautious comments, in days after the October 7 terrorist attack on Israel. Their collective reticence stood in stark contrast to the speed with which so many had offered expressions of solidarity or shared grief whenever an election or court case went the “wrong” way in the years since 2014. (In general I think universities should embrace the “Chicago Principles” and commit to institutional neutrality. See Jeff Flier’s recent application of these principles to the current situation. But if university leaders made so many pronouncements on “controversial” issues before October 7, then they should have made a strong one on October 8.)

Why did so many leaders take so long to say anything strong or (seemingly) heartfelt about the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the holocaust? Why did so many wait a few days to see which way the wind was blowing before augmenting their initially tepid statements?

I see nothing to suggest antisemitism; I see everything to suggest fear. The kind of fear that Greg and Rikki explore and explain in The Canceling of the American Mind.

. . .  have spoken with many university presidents since 2015. Most of them have good academic values. They are trying hard to lead institutions that are becoming “ungovernable,” as one president said to me. I have also spoken with the leaders of museums, professional associations, and non-profit organizations. They face the same challenges from their politically active employees who use social media like a “dart gun” to intimidate leaders into making rapid pronouncements on the issues the activists care about, and to intimidate leaders into silence about issues and events that contradict their preferred narrative about victim groups and oppressor groups.

Of course my own position is that universities should be officially institutionally neutral, making no pronouncements on politics, ideology, and morality unless they’re on issues that directly affect the working of the school. The University of Chicago statement, which basically says “There’s a war on; people are concerned; here’s the resources where you can get help,” can be seen here.

If it were official policy for universities to avoid taking stands on stuff that didn’t concern them directly, there would be no need for suspicious administrative silences, balled-up statements that get walked back, and donors stopping their contributions.

We need a country-wide push for institutitional neutrality of the Chicago type, yet so far only three universities have implemented it. For some reason they can’t adopt this reasonable position, designed to avoid free speech being impeded by fear of hurting your prospects at school. This leads to self-censorship  Do universities really NEED to weigh in on politics and ideology, especially if it chills speech? I see no reason why, and this week’s parade of college presidents repeatedly “clarifying” their positions is a strong argument for institutional neutrality.

Of course if a school has a history of making such pronouncements, they are obliged to condemn Hamas for what it did to Israel, and to speak out about terrorism. But it’s best to avoid accumulating such a history, as then you have to weigh in on nearly every significant event.

c. The spread of self-censorship beyond campuses. 

In the five years since The Coddling was published, the disease has metastasized and spread far beyond universities. It now infects journalism, the arts, non-profits, K-12 education, and even medicine. Show me an organization where people are afraid to speak up, afraid to challenge dominant ideas lest they be destroyed socially, and I’ll show you an organization that has become structurally stupid, unmoored from reality, and unable to achieve its mission. In The Canceling of the American Mind, Greg and Rikki follow the story far beyond universities to show how deep the structural stupidity now runs. If we want to make our minds and our institutions work well again, we’re going to have to end the “crisis of self-censorship” that Rikki wrote about. This book [Lukianoff and Schlott] will tell you how we do that.

Can you think of “an organization where people are afraid to speak up, afraid to challenge dominant ideas lest they be destroyed socially” that has not become “structurally stupid, unmoored from reality, and unable to achieve its mission”?  I think this is a rigged question, actually, because if people are afraid to challenge dominant ideas, the organization has already become those things!

d. The waning respect for American universities. This is something that may hurt the Democrats in the next Presidential election.

The fact that higher ed lost the trust of most of the country before October 7 should have inspired soul searching and reform long ago. We can only guess how much lower the numbers have fallen since October 8, the day when so many university leaders failed to say or do anything.

Below is one graph showing this. (There’s another asking Americans whether colleges have a negative effect on the U.S.  In that one, Democrats haven’t changed much since 2012 but Republicans “yes” answers have gone up quite a bit. Independents weren’t surveyed).

The caption for this plot is “ Percent of U.S. adults with “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. Source: Gallup (2023).


Note that there’s a substantial drop in all three categories, but it’s very large (from 56% to 19% for Republicans, a drop of 66%!).  This is more or less a repudiation of “elitism” in that college create the “elite”, and the drop could play a role in buttressing Republicans next year.  Gallup doesn’t analyze why this has happened, but surely burgeoning left-wing authoritarianism (“wokeness”) plays a role, for universities are largely left-wing institutions. And the public, by and large, sees universities as absorbed with in this brand of crazy performative activity.

7 thoughts on “Jon Haidt on a new book, the silence of university leaders, self-censorship, and America’s loss of confidence in higher education

  1. I think it would be an advance if institutions, both governmental and private, simply stopped using social media for anything except one-way — outgoing — communication of official information. The current attempt to use it to give the impression they are in some sort of conversation with the outside world simply makes them vulnerable to the danger of overreacting to targeted activist campaigns, or feeling pressured to react before they are ready, as well as the danger of institutional policy being led, or misled, by the individual who happens to control the Twitter account.

  2. Interesting—and great that people are speaking out and writing out.

    Yes. Colleges administrations should immediately adopt the Kalven Principles, even if it is for purely selfish reasons. It protects administrators from having to make political pronouncements on topics outside their areas of expertise. No administrator wants to feel obligated to weigh in on every story in the news; yet this is what happens when administrations have no Kalven Principles to fall back on. The Kalven Principles give administrators a license to keep their mouths shut.

    Administrators surely would rather issue the statement below and not be pressured to issue a statement that inevitably becomes a verbal incendiary device.

    “Our institutional adherence to the Kalven Principles obligates me to refrain from issuing public statements on matters such as this. These principles ensure that our faculty and students remain free to express their own views, which we vigorously encourage.”

    Come on, administrators. It’s not only the right thing to do, but adopting the Principles is in your own enlightened self interest.

  3. The decline in confidence in higher education could be an integration of different factors, where one respondent answers with a certain viewpoint in mind, while a different respondent gives the same answer (“I am less confident in higher ed”), but their reason is from a different viewpoint. Some may give this answer because they don’t like the stifling growth of wokeness on campus. But a different person may give the same answer because of the rising cost of higher ed, resulting in deep and possibly life-long student loan debt.

    1. And I’ve lost some confidence in higher education because of the exorbitant expenditures and deference they give to their sports personnel and programs. I think many Universities consider their sports teams, not education, the most important aspect of their University. It’s all about the Green God.

  4. “Confidence in higher education” is an interesting term.
    I trusted, and I think I still would trust, that the universities I went to would give me a good education in chemistry and law – “good” being defined broadly as that which would enable to me to earn a living in those fields.
    But would I be able to trust now that a university would give me a good education in “softer” fields, and not try to indoctrinate me in a particular social worldview? – I don’t know.
    Would I feel confident now of being able to acquire and maintain a university teaching position even in the fields in which I am educated? – not at all: I’m not sure that I could, or would want to try, navigating the world of Kendian reverse racism that seems to permeate academia.
    Unless and until universities decide that they are going to steer clear of the current social kerfuffle and concentrate on providing their students with a good education – “good” being defined here as of high quality in the subjects being taught, recognizing that some of those subjects, like Ancient Greek, are less likely to lead to gainful employment in the subject than others, like engineering – I think that “confidence” in higher education will remain low.
    But then I’m a dinosaur.

  5. I think the comical expense of college is a big reason for the mistrust. Couple that with many of the degrees offering little in the way of financial prospects. The arrogance and stupidity of wokeness obviously doesn’t help.
    I’ll also give a quick personal account. I started at a community college before moving on to a pharmacy college and I’m very confident that the latter was an extremely inefficient (and expensive) way of learning to do my job competently and safely. My view of college is that they have a monopoly over who officially knows what. Frankly, there is a lot in our culture that insists that the only way to learn something is to get an expensive degree. I’m a democrat and I think much of our higher education process is obscene .

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