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.
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.