Free speech

Campus Turmoil Begins in High School

A month before the Yale Halloween meltdown, I had a bizarre and illuminating experience at an elite private high school on the West Coast. I’ll call it Centerville High. I gave a version of a talk that you can see here, on Coddle U. vs. Strengthen U. (In an amazing coincidence, I first gave that talk at Yale a few weeks earlier).

The entire student body — around 450 students, from grades 9-12 — was in the auditorium. There was plenty of laughter at all the right spots, and a lot of applause at the end, so I thought the talk was well received.

But then the discussion began, and it was the most unremittingly hostile questioning I’ve ever had. I don’t mind when people ask hard or critical questions, but I was surprised that I had misread the audience so thoroughly. My talk had little to do with gender, but the second question was “So you think rape is OK?”

Related: A Targeted Teacher at Yale Quits

Like most of the questions, it was backed up by a sea of finger snaps — the sort you can hear in the infamous Yale video, where a student screams at Prof. Christakis to “be quiet” and tells him that he is “disgusting.” I had never heard the snapping before. When it happens in a large auditorium it is disconcerting. It makes you feel that you are facing an angry and unified mob — a feeling I have never had in 25 years of teaching and public speaking.

After the first dozen questions I noticed that not a single questioner was male. I began to search the sea of hands asking to be called on and I did find one boy, who asked a question that indicated that he too was critical of my talk. But other than him, the 200 or so boys in the audience sat silently.

After the Q&A, I got a half-standing ovation: almost all of the boys in the room stood up to cheer. And after the crowd broke up, a line of boys came up to me to thank me and shake my hand. Not a single girl came up to me afterward.

After my main lecture, the next session involved 60 students who had signed up for further discussion with me. We moved to a large classroom. The last thing I wanted to do was to continue the same fruitless arguing for another 75 minutes, so I decided to take control of the session and reframe the discussion. Here is what happened next:

Me: What kind of intellectual climate do you want here at Centerville? Would you rather have option A: a school where people with views you find offensive keep their mouths shut, or B: a school where everyone feels that they can speak up in class discussions?

Audience: All hands go up for B.

Me: OK, let’s see if you have that. When there is a class discussion about gender issues, do you feel free to speak up and say what you are thinking? Or do you feel that you are walking on eggshells and you must heavily censor yourself? Just the girls in the class, raise your hand if you feel you can speak up? [About 70% said they feel free, vs about 10% who said eggshells.] Now just the boys? [About 80% said eggshells; nobody said they feel free.]

Me: Now let’s try it for race. When a topic related to race comes up in class, do you feel free to speak up and say what you are thinking, or do you feel that you are walking on eggshells and you must heavily censor yourself? Just the non-white students? The group was around 30% non-white, mostly South and East Asians, and some African Americans. A majority said they felt free to speak, although a large minority said eggshells. Now just the white students? [A large majority said eggshells]

Me: Now let’s try it for politics. How many of you would say you are on the right politically, or that you are conservative or Republican? [6 hands went up, out of 60 students]. Just you folks, when politically charged topics come up, can you speak freely? [Only one hand went up, but that student clarified that everyone gets mad at him when he speaks up, but he does it anyway. The other 5 said eggshells.] How many of you are on the left, liberal, or democrat? [Most hands go up] Can you speak freely, or is it eggshells? [Almost all said they can speak freely.]

Me: So let me get this straight. You were unanimous in saying that you want your school to be a place where people feel free to speak up, even if you strongly dislike their views. But you don’t have such a school. In fact, you have exactly the sort of “tolerance” that Herbert Marcuse advocated [which I had discussed in my lecture, and which you can read about here]. You have a school in which only people in the preferred groups get to speak, and everyone else is afraid. What are you going to do about this? Let’s talk.

Related: Too Many Hollow Men on Campus

After that, the conversation was extremely civil and constructive. The boys took part just as much as the girls. We talked about what Centerville could do to improve its climate, and I said that the most important single step would be to make viewpoint diversity a priority. On the entire faculty, there was not a single teacher that was known to be conservative or Republican. So if these teenagers are coming into political consciousness inside of a “moral matrix” that is uniformly leftist, there will always be anger directed at those who disrupt that consensus.

That night, after I gave a different talk to an adult audience, there was a reception at which I spoke with some of the parents. Several came up to me to tell me that their sons had told them about the day’s events. The boys finally had a way to express and explain their feelings of discouragement. Their parents were angry to learn about how their sons were being treated and…there’s no other word for it, bullied into submission by the girls.*

Centerville High is not alone. Last summer I had a conversation with some boys who attend one of the nation’s top prep schools in New England. They reported the same thing: as white males, they are constantly on eggshells, afraid to speak up on any remotely controversial topic lest they be sent to the “equality police” (that was their term for the multicultural center). I probed to see if their fear extended beyond the classroom. I asked them what they would do if there was a new student at their school, from, say Yemen. Would they feel free to ask the student questions about his or her country? No, they said, it’s too risky, a question could be perceived as offensive.

You might think that this is some sort of justice — white males have enjoyed positions of privilege for centuries, and now they are getting a taste of their own medicine. But these are children. And remember that most students who are in a victim group for one topic are in the “oppressor” group for another. So everyone is on eggshells sometimes; all students at Centerville High learn to engage with books, ideas, and people using the twin habits of defensive self-censorship and vindictive protectiveness.

And then… they go off to college and learn new ways to gain status by expressing collective anger at those who disagree. They curse professors and spit on visiting speakers at Yale. They shut down newspapers at Wesleyan. They torment a dean who was trying to help them at Claremont McKenna. They threaten and torment fellow students at Dartmouth. And in all cases, they demand that adults in power DO SOMETHING to punish those whose words and views offend them. Their high schools have thoroughly socialized them into what sociologists call victimhood culture, which weakens students by turning them into “moral dependents” who cannot deal with problems on their own. They must get adult authorities to validate their victim status.

So they issue ultimatums to college presidents, and, as we saw at Yale, the college presidents meet their deadlines, give them much of what they demanded, commit their schools to an ever tighter embrace of victimhood culture, and say nothing to criticize the bullying, threats, and intimidation tactics that have created a culture of intense fear for anyone who might even consider questioning the prevailing moral matrix. What do you suppose a conversation about race or gender will look like in any Yale classroom ten years from now? Who will dare to challenge the orthodox narrative imposed by victimhood culture? The “Next Yale” that activists are demanding will make today’s Centerville High look like Plato’s Academy by comparison.

The only hope for Centerville High — and for Yale — is to disrupt their repressively uniform moral matrices to make room for dissenting views. High schools and colleges that lack viewpoint diversity should make it their top priority. Race and gender diversity matter too, but if those goals are pursued in the ways that student activists are currently demanding, then political orthodoxy is likely to intensify. Schools that value freedom of thought should therefore actively seek out non-leftist faculty, and they should explicitly include viewpoint diversity and political diversity in all statements about diversity and discrimination. Parents and students who value freedom of thought should take viewpoint diversity into account when applying to colleges. Alumni should take it into account before writing any more checks.

The Yale problem refers to an unfortunate feedback loop: Once you allow victimhood culture to spread on your campus, you can expect ever more anger from students representing victim groups, coupled with demands for a deeper institutional commitment to victimhood culture, which leads inexorably to more anger, more demands, and more commitment. But the Yale problem didn’t start at Yale. It started in high school. As long as many of our elite prep schools are turning out students who have only known eggshells and anger, whose social cognition is limited to a single dimension of victims and victimizers, and who demand safe spaces and trigger warnings, it’s hard to imagine how any university can open students’ minds and prepare them to converse respectfully with people who don’t share their values. Especially when there are no adults around who don’t share their values.

This article is reprinted with permission from Heterodox Academy.


Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

19 thoughts on “Campus Turmoil Begins in High School”

  1. More Socrates Cafe groups, beginning long before High School, would help. Simply thinking of ways to word your questions or statements so that people who disagree will, at least, be able to hear what you say may allow actual conversation to occur, followed, you may hope, by communication and/or understanding. In lieu of Socrates Cafe, parents who encourage their children to independently think and actually allow them to do so might, eventually, ease the difficulty of mutual understanding between male and female human beings.

  2. Then in their early ’20’s, the teachers hired in the 1980’s & 1990’s are now in their 50’s & 60’s — they are the people who now largely run both the schools and the teacher training programs — and hence the hiring decisions of a quarter century ago influence K-12 education today.

    This was at the height of the child abuse hysteria, and while there was no reason to suspect that all male applicants were sexual predators, the (mostly male) administrators almost inevitably made the “safe” choice of the female applicant if there was one. Unless one was a coach, it was a very hard time for a man to enter the teaching profession.

    In the mid-90’s, the Mass Teacher’s Association magazine cited an interesting statistic: 80% of the teacher under age 40 and 90% of the teachers under age 30 were female — memory is that this was nationally and not just in Massachusetts.

    That’s where a lot of this started — the points cited above are valid, and I’d add that that the Behavioral Intervention Teams are not to be overlooked, but this is where it started.

  3. god forbid you have a dissenting opinion with the special snowflakes, this jus goes to show that if you say anything they’ll send a lynch mob afte you.

  4. I’m sure we have all heard about the math/science gap for girls. There is an even bigger language arts (i.e. reading, writing, vocabulary & grammar) for boys. This is consistently documented by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, “the nation’s report card”), which is done by the US Department of Education — clearly not a right-wing outfit.

    Teaching High School English, I was required to assign Francine Pascal’s _Hanging Out with Cici_ — a book about a teenaged girl who travels back in time and befriends her then-teenaged mother (who is complaining about her own overly-strict mother). And yes, it does address the issue of telling teenagers not to do things you did as a teenager — none of my students picked that up, and I chose not to raise it.

    To a large extent, girls like reading about relationships and families while boys (if you can get them to read at all) like to read about action hand overcoming adversity. Think fashion magazine versus sports page, a description of Michelle Obama’s gown versus RBI & ERA statistics. (That’s why I like _Captains Courageous_ — it has both, and they come together at the end — for girls there is the mother reuniting with the son she thought lot at sea, for boys there is the logistics of an expedited 19th Century cross-country trip.)

    Needless to say, the girls loved the book, and the boys hated it, which the girls also enjoyed. It was hunting season, one young man literally took the paperback book out into the woods and shot it — displaying the shredded remains in class and proudly proclaiming that he “had put it out of its misery.”

    Common Core will only make this worse.

  5. A great essay!

    Part of the problem stems from the fact that nearly all K-12 teachers have gone through ed school curricula where “progressive” theories about education meld with leftist notions about everything else. Thus, a high percentage of our teachers are imbued with a “social justice warrior” mentality; they transmit that mentality to their students.

  6. A big piece of the high-school problem, where phony claims of victimization are dis-empowering boys and empowering girls (in self-defeating ways), is the very aggressive anti-bullying movement, complete with laws that create massive liability for the schools, liability that they are FORCED to protect against with extreme zero-tolerance policies. “No common sense allowed” is a direct result of anti-bullying laws.

    “Anti-bullying” has two components. The first is that all criticism is to be aggressively curtailed, along with anything that anyone can possibly find offensive, but boys don’t think that way.

    To complain about being criticized, or to take complaints of offense to superior powers for adjudication, is being a sissy. It’s a girl thing, so this whole movement empowers girls over boys, and in the worst way, empowering their tendency to tattle, and of course lie, as manipulators of power generally do, framing every issue in the way that is most advantageous to their position regardless of the merits.

    Using “offense” and what a girl “feels” as a criterion for her having been wronged is a disaster here. It teaches girls to find ways to take offence and make dishonestly manipulative appeals to superior powers to do their bidding for them. Good for the boys for not succumbing to this immorality the way the girls have. They aren’t fighting for their manhood (a very unfair thing to impose on boys) but at least they aren’t giving it up.

    The second thrust of the anti-bullying movement is the morally perverted insistence that violence is always wrong. This comes from the mainstream anti-gun left with its unremitting hatred of America’s constitutionally protected civil rights. Even a patriotic image of a gun is banned from school. An image of an armed American soldier is considered offensive and threatening. “Zero tolerance” for our own soldiers!

    No distinction between committing a murder and stopping a murder is allowed, no distinction between aggression and defense. These moral distinctions are supplanted with a restriction on means: NO violence is ever allowable. It is pure moral imbecility, where “anti-bullying” is being used as a Trojan horse for attacking constitutionally protected values that the left hates, but again, boys don’t think that way.

    Some beta males do, as they follow their beta-instincts to white-knight for the obedient girls who claim to be victimized by their terror of the possible presence of any would-be defenders, but most boys want to be defenders. The idea that because schools are under threat they should put down arms instead of pick up arms is insane to them, as it is insane to any sane person.

    So the boys are quiet. They will be punished if they speak out. They may actually be kicked out of school if they speak approvingly of guns. They certainly will be if any pretend-frightened girl or beta-male tells school authorities that they feel threatened and these children have been taught to feel threatened by ALL guns, with no distinction between aggressor and defender allowed.

    Too bad the boys are not in a position to fight back but good for them for not succumbing. The worst off are those boys who do succumb, and let themselves be emasculated. It isn’t just beta males who do this either, but also alpha males like Bill Clinton, who used the liberty-hating demagoguery of the left as a path to power and access to left-wing women.

    Just as the boys who succumb become emasculated, so do the girls who succumb become de-feminized. They are empowered by the worst side of female nature, the power-manipulating side, like every harridan female of traditional literature, like a spider catching flies in her web. Instead of becoming loving help-mates, as real men and women need to be for each other, girls in our public schools are trained to become selfish underminers.

    This may be the gloomiest prospect of all for the boys but it is equally bad for the girls, because while the boys are mostly being quiet they do see what is going on and they are not going to marry these kinds of girls. Whole cohorts of girls are being trained to be unmarriageable.

    That disastrous outcome is just what its anti-feminine “feminist” authors want. The whole “feminist” movement is dominated by anti-heterosexual lesbians who are just female enough to know how to manipulate the bad side of female nature. They want to drive men and women apart and they are succeeding.

    For the girls themselves, becoming cannon fodder the lesbian war on men is the crushing of all hopes. No self-regarding man will marry any girl who goes searching for opportunities to claim victimization. She can’t be trusted, and this is seen in the dramatic decline in marriage. I hardly expect to see left-of-center millennials getting married at all.

    Haidt’s observations are telling. Most of this is fixed in place by high school. It gets worse in college but it is already there and the anti-bullying movement is a big part of the mechanism. Far-left domination of virtually every education school plays a part as does left-domination of the teacher’s unions but it is the anti-bullying laws that FORCE the schools to give way to all of these left-wing forces, and in the most extreme zero-tolerance fashion.

  7. “They curse professors and spit on visiting speakers at Yale. They shut down newspapers at Wesleyan. They torment a dean who was trying to help them at Claremont McKenna. They threaten and torment fellow students at Dartmouth.”

    One word : Antioch.

  8. reframing the discussion around how males are oppressed was a good move.

    I wonder if the president would recognize how he is oppressing and demonizing boys.

  9. You aint seen nothing yet/ This is exactly how China’s Cultural Revolution got started, and it is planned by the same sort of people.

    This generation of kids will turn out to be useless for anything other that work as communist apprarts, which is exactly what they are. This willful subversion of our “educational system” has been going on for more than 40 years now, and it is finally reaching the point of no return.

    This applies to even the STEM oriented elements of the student body. Just wait until this generation transitions to power.

    The Left is winning, and unless this is turned around America will have a fate similar to Mexico in a handful of years,

  10. Thank you Professor Haidt for trying to restore integrity and fairness in Academia, as well as critical thinking. All three are sorely needed in Academia and in the general population, particularly for those in leadership positions.

  11. Darn right it starts in High School.

    I am an attorney, a professionally trained historian who also taught high school and college, the owner and publisher of a major American independent press, the author of a dozen books in nearly as many languages, and an entrepreneur.

    I taught college business, law, and history classes as an adjunct for about 22 years. It ended in 2010 when students started accusing me of “gender oppression” and other ridiculous things and reporting me to the Dean. The Dean was a good guy and shrugged it off, but how long would it take before some awful accusation was made that made the news?

    The students were ages 18 – 45. The ones that objected were all younger than 22 and 9-1 female. I taught history subjects (WWII, American expansion, et. al.) that “oppressed minorities” and did not “respect” X, Y and Z. And the hostility of some of the questions and objections was jaw-dropping. It began about 2008, but within two years it was palpably uncomfortable. All that was missing was the snapping fingers.

    I didn’t need the money; nor did I need the aggravation. I quit.

    I figured out why so many (nearly all women) felt this way: In my classes, no matter what issue or argument a student brings up, I make my students “flip their cube” and argue the opposite point of view using substance. To my surprise, many (most) refused. “Why would I argue a position that is evil? Or wrong? Or stupid? . . .”) It was no longer about learning; it was about propaganda and silencing dissent.

    We are entering scary times, and I am discovering that women may be even more capable of evil things, with power, than men.

    1. Of course they are. My wife has said since we starting dating (1976) that women are sneaky and vindictive. Through the years I have become a believer. We went way overboard empowering women in education back in the ’70’s trying to get more of them in the hard sciences. Who’d have thunk it?
      (Been a conservative high school teacher for 38yrs)

  12. The answer is to defund Progressive worldview education in K-12, university, law schools and Journalism schools. Replace the pedagogy with “1776-Tragic-Liberty” worldview ed.

    It is how to restore a Republic that has not been kept. This needs to be done before a Convention of the States can be trusted to amend the Constitution back unto a Republic. But after Prog ed is defunded, the Hydra heads of Prog Idiocracy will cease to be.

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