Jonathan Haidt Speaks on Three Bad Ideas Harming Generation Z

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Editor’s note: This story was written by Robert Kraynak, professor of political science and director of the Center For Freedom and Western Civilization.

Are young people today being harmed by well-intentioned parents and teachers who are trying to protect them from adversity and difficult ideas?

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Coddling of the American Mind and professor of business ethics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, came to Colgate on March 7 and gave some provocative answers to this question.

Speaking in the informal style of a TED Talk and using statistics from moral psychology and the wisdom of ancient philosophers, Haidt spoke passionately about the experiences of Generation Z — children born after 1995, who are now in college. He warned the audience that young people, like all living organisms, can be harmed by sheltering them from adversity, risk, and danger and by treating them as if they were too fragile to handle the stresses of life.

Haidt organized his engaging talk around “three great untruths” or bad ideas that are being taught to Generation Z:

  1. The untruth of fragility, which holds that “what does not kill you, makes you weaker.” This is the mistaken idea behind college campuses’ safe spaces and trigger warnings that are supposed to protect students from exposure to dangerous ideas. The opposite is more likely — engaging with difficult ideas strengthens the mind and heart, because young people are not as fragile assumed.
  2. The untruth of emotional reasoning, which teaches students to “always trust your feelings.” This is the mistaken notion that subjectivity is better than objective reasoning based on evidence and argument.
  3. The untruth of Us vs. Them, which views life as a battle between good and evil people. This is the mistaken notion of the righteous mind that treats ideological opponents as bad people and presumes that one’s own side has a monopoly on virtue. The impact of these ideas has been heightened by social media and the lack of independent risk-taking by Generation Z, creating concerns about the future of democracy, which requires engagement with all sides and a willingness to handle adversity.

Using countless stories and illustrations from current statistics about mental health issues, Haidt provoked the audience to think, laugh, and cringe about the current state of education. Some students questioned whether he was being too pessimistic about their generation, but his tough love message of anti-fragility was bracing for many people to hear. He closed with some advice from ancient wisdom about avoiding tribalism and resisting the division of people into good and evil, along with an invitation to join his Heterodox Academy and Open Mind Platform.

Haidt’s visit was sponsored by the Center for Freedom and Western Civilization and the Forum on Constitutional Government.