Nick Enfield, Aim Sinpeng and Jonathan Haidt

Is the Australian mind at risk of being coddled?

29 July 2019
Co-founder of the Heterodox Academy, Professor Jonathan Haidt of New York University, wants students to become 'anti-fragile' in service of intellectual ideals.

While Australian universities debate the merits of free speech codes, American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt warns we may be about to face a much more pressing issue: a repressive university culture.

At the University of Sydney for an intimate symposium on ‘viewpoint diversity’, hosted by the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC) and the Sydney Policy Lab, Mr Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business, said free speech codes are just the “tip of the iceberg”.

“The biggest issue in the US is ‘callout culture’ – [because of this], students are afraid to speak in class,” Mr Haidt, a global authority on the psychology of morality and in the midst of an Australasian speaking tour presented by Think Inc., said.

“Professors are also afraid of students as they can be reported for perceived slights to students’ emotional wellbeing. At my university, for example, there are signs in the bathrooms that state three ways to report a lecturer.”

Other examples of American students’ increasingly coddled minds, Mr Haidt provided, are relatively novel notions like ‘trigger warnings’; ‘safe spaces’; ‘microaggressions’; and ‘words as violence’.

Mr Haidt says stifled debate poses a grave threat to intellectual progress. “The magic of university is that it institutionalises disconfirmation – unless it doesn’t,” he said. “What is sacred here is the pursuit of truth.”

In introducing Mr Haidt, Linguistics Professor Nick Enfield of the School of Literature, Art and Media also noted the perils of confirmation bias: “As Karl Popper said, we never confirm a hypothesis, we can only show that it has not been falsified.”

A rapt audience listening to Professor Jonathan Haidt

A rapt audience listening to Professor Jonathan Haidt.

How the American mind became coddled

Mr Haidt argued that the vision of academia as descendants of Plato’s Academy – where intellectuals debated one another without fear of recrimination – has been diminishing since 2014, when, in the US, a “wave of fear” swept through elite institutions, and fast became the norm at all colleges.

He claims this is due to several, oft-interrelated factors:

  • Gen-Z arrived on campus, for the first time, with significantly elevated rates of depression and anxiety;
  • The entrenched and pervasive use of social media among this generation;
  • Overprotective parenting of Gen-Z children;
  • Political purification and polarisation; and
  • The great ‘awokening’ of liberals.

A cure for coddling?

Mr Haidt is optimistic that the ‘culture of safetyism’ that has emerged on US college campuses, and, to a lesser extent, on British, Canadian and Australian ones, can be challenged with principled leadership.

“Leadership and professors must talk about ‘anti-fragility’,” Mr Haidt continued. “They shouldn’t validate emotional safety. Education is meant to make people think, not be comfortable.”

Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence also commented on the role of leadership on this issue, in regards to in championing the right to disagree well.

“As an institution, though we have certain moral obligations, we try not to have an opinion but be a forum for various opinions,” he said.

Like Mr Haidt, Dr Aim Sinpeng, a politics and digital media expert from the School of Social and Political Sciences, was hopeful that students would feel free to express themselves in classrooms, albeit via a different mechanism.

“Millennials and Gen –Z travel much more than previous generations,” she said. “I hope this helps them to engage with diverse viewpoints.”

Professor Jonathan Haidt with University of Sydney Vice Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence

Professor Jonathan Haidt with University of Sydney Vice Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence.