What does the science of social psychology have to tell us about the current challenges and threats to free speech? A great deal, according to Dr. Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Dr. Haidt is a co-founder of Heterodox Academy (HxA), an exciting new alliance of academics seeking to expand support for political diversity and highlight the challenges of ideological orthodoxy in higher education. The Forum recently sat down with Dr. Haidt and his team at Heterodox Academy to discuss this innovative organization’s approach to changing the culture in higher education and expanding viewpoint diversity.
The Forum: Freedom of expression and diversity of opinion are under attack on many college campuses. What prompted Heterodox Academy’s founding in this environment, and what do you hope to achieve?
Dr. Haidt: In September 2015, a few weeks before the wave of student protests began, Heterodox Academy was founded to address a very specific problem: the loss of viewpoint diversity, especially political diversity, among the faculty in colleges and universities across America.
But as campus debate heated up in the fall of 2015, political passions rose and students who dissented from the prevailing orthodoxy found themselves increasingly under attack. Why should students feel like they cannot express themselves? Why should any subgroup of students be able to deem what is appropriate speech and which speaker is worthy of being heard? Are we engineering a climate where students will graduate without any exposure to contrasting viewpoints? What does that mean for businesses who hire grads unable to deal with those with whom they disagree politically?
A culture that will not tolerate divergence of opinion harms students, but academic research is also at risk when dominant theories and opinions no longer encounter counterclaims that test their validity.
Our goal is to create a network of academic stakeholders united in their intent to see the university live up to its ideals of truth, civil disagreement, and intellectual discovery. We want administrators and professors to stand up for free speech and free inquiry. We envision a campus where ideas can be expressed, beliefs challenged and theories critically analyzed so as to help students develop a more comprehensive and valid understanding of varied social and political perspectives, freed from the fear of intimidation by peers.
The Forum: Your passionate interest and support for viewpoint diversity in higher education is connected to his scholarship in social and moral psychology and business ethics. How do these fields inform the Heterodox Academy’s mission?
Dr. Haidt: The brief answer is that we all suffer from confirmation bias—the tendency to use all of our powers of reasoning to seek out proof of why we are right. The only known cure for confirmation bias is engaging with other people who see things differently. Only they can find reasons why you might be wrong. Only they can help you improve your thinking. Therefore, an orthodox university cannot make you smarter, it can only confirm the prejudices you brought with you. A heterodox university, in contrast, elevates everyone’s ability to reason and sets students up with more realistic expectations about the world they will enter after commencement.
The Forum: What are the effects on individuals who live, work, and study in an environment that tolerates only one viewpoint—or orthodoxy?
Dr. Haidt: In such an environment, individuals with contrasting views are silenced either by peers or—more often—through self-censorship, walking on eggshells. What we want to break is the echo chamber in which people who have the same perspective endlessly reinforce each other, deepening orthodoxy and lessening the potential for cross-partisan conversations and empathy.
The future of liberal democracy depends in no small measure on empathy—the ability to humanize and understand others. Students need to see those with whom they disagree politically as people—or else they risk alienating and demonizing the other side, which only leads to further conflict and highly-limited understanding.
The Forum: HxA is trying to solve a complex—seemingly intractable—challenge deeply ingrained in the culture of higher education. What are practical steps reformers can take to improve what’s happening on campus?
Dr. Haidt: Most people on most campuses believe in free speech, as we saw in the recent anonymous survey of Yale students, who overwhelmingly favor viewpoint diversity, including bringing in controversial speakers. But sadly, there is a climate of fear and intimidation on many campuses in which a small minority of very passionate students prevents the majority from speaking up honestly. So the trick is to do things that will embolden the majority to speak up. Here are a few ideas:
1) Administrators, faculty, and campus leaders must speak out often. A good way to approach this problem is to have the faculty senate, or some administrative body, endorse the Chicago Principles of free expression.
The Chicago Principles guarantee free inquiry and place a premium on viewpoint diversity as a practice that enhances higher education. Students who are concerned about their institution can work to pass Heterodox University resolutions, much as they have done successfully at Northwestern. Part of endorsing the Chicago Principles is an absolute commitment to allowing invited speakers to speak. No group has the right to shout down a speaker or decide for other students whether or not they should have the right to listen to a speaker. Students who shout down speakers or intimidate fellow students must be punished.
2) Collect data on the problem at your school. Administrators may be tempted to believe that this is a problem facing other campuses, but not their own. Hard data are essential to uncovering the breadth and depth of the problem. Consider using tools such as our new Fearless Speech Index (FSI), which allows professors and others on campus to measure the degree that people feel comfortable expressing themselves in a group setting.
3) Change the materials and readings sent to students before they arrive on campus, and in their first semester on campus. Create an orientation letter that emphasizes free expression, as the University of Chicago did. Assign the first three or four steps of the Viewpoint Diversity Experience (VDE) as summer reading, and then have new students meet in small groups to do steps five and six of the VDE together.
The VDE is a free educational resource designed to prepare students for engagement in intellectually diverse settings, from the academy to the workplaces they will soon inhabit. The VDE takes users on a six-step journey, at the end of which they will be better able to live alongside—and learn from—fellow students who do not share their politics. This resource can be assigned as a pre-read or presented during orientation week.
Viewpoint diversity is an issue that has impact on everyone in higher education, and it is urgently necessary for administrators, professors, and students to see that it is the lifeblood of teaching and learning. Actually, most of them know that. But knowing is not enough. They must take action to preserve viewpoint diversity in their organizations.
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