What Are Universities For?

Jonathan Haidt Takes a Stand for Truth over Ideology in Higher Ed

Truth or ideology? Conscience or conformity? Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist at New York University, thinks truth and conscience should take precedent over ideological conformity, and he’s taking a stand. In an article published in The Chronicle for Higher Education titled, “When Truth and Social Justice Collide, Chose Truth,” Haidt laments how far the universities have drifted from what he believes should be their primary interest: truth.

Haidt believes that this classic endeavor – higher education – is being jeopardized by ideological agendas and demands. While planning material for the annual Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, Haidt was asked to explain how his presentation fulfilled the organization’s equity, inclusion, and anti-racism goals. He writes:

I believe that anti-racism has a place at SPSP. Let there be speakers, panels, and discussions of this morally controversial and influential idea at our next conference! But to adopt it as the official view and mission of SPSP and then to force us all to say how our work advances it, as a precondition to speaking at the conference? This is wrong for two reasons: First, it elevates anti-racism to be a coequal telos of SPSP, which means that we would no longer rotate around the single axis of excellent science. Every talk would have to be both scientifically sound and anti-racist, even though good science and political activism rarely mix well. Second, it puts pressure on social psychologists — especially younger ones, who most need to present at the conference — to betray their fiduciary duty to the truth and profess outward deference to an ideology that some of them do not privately endorse.

The “fiduciary duty” Haidt mentions indicates a scholar’s commitment to the truth in his or her respective field. To violate the duty means failing the academic vocation. Haidt also noted that he read the seminal book on anti-racism How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi in the summer of 2020 and had concerns over some of its claims. He referenced one of the book’s most well-known and controversial quotes, which reads:

The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.

For Haidt and many Americans across the political spectrum, it is unclear how discrimination is the answer to discrimination. It’s like saying gasoline is the solution to putting a fire out.

Truth or Training in Activism?

Furthermore, Haidt doesn’t want to endorse those views just to present material at an academic conference. He announced his resignation from the association and implored his fellow academics and Americans to renew their commitment to truth and honest, open conversation about important issues:

I cannot remain loyal to an organization that is changing its telos and asking its members to violate their quasi-fiduciary duties to the truth. I am especially dubious of the wisdom of making an academic organization more overtly political in its mission, especially in the midst of a raging culture war, when trust in universities is plummeting.

According to Haidt, universities are at a crossroads, and their competing visions of purpose cannot coexist. Either academia is a truth-seeking institution, or an activism training ground. They cannot be both.

Haidt would probably be quick to say that social activism has its rightful place in society. Social change can be a good thing. People may disagree on how to implement change, or to what extent change is needed, but that doesn’t mean universities must force everyone to subscribe to one viewpoint or make social justice their main “telos.”

Whether you’re on the right or the left, suppressing viewpoint diversity harms the academic project, and hurts college students, who are already suffering from anxiety and increased fragility. They need truth, even if it involves getting uncomfortable. In the words of the world’s greatest Teacher: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Without truth, the soul starves, and as Haidt points out, ideological fad is indeed a poor truth substitute.

Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn (Resource Publications, 2022) and Keep and Other Stories (Resource Publications, 2022). He has also written for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, and Breaking Ground. Born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma, he currently serves as Content & Communications Fellow for the Chesterton House, a Christian Study Center at Cornell University.

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