Last week I wrote a post titled The Yale Problem Begins in High School. I talked about an odd experience I had giving a talk at a private high school which I called “Centerville High.” The school was very progressive, very concerned with issues of diversity and inclusion. Yet I found in discussions that conservatives and boys felt silenced, and that most students felt that they were “walking on eggshells” and afraid to speak up on some issues.
The post has received 272 comments so far, including thirteen from students who self-identify as being Centerville students who attended my talk. Their comments are fascinating, thoughtful, respectful, and helpful. This post presents their comments to give readers deeper insight into what is going on at Centerville, and perhaps at many other high schools. The comments are unedited, in the order they were posted [although I will insert a few brief comments in brackets]. I will also put in bold some sections that I think are particularly important. As you’ll see, the students split on exactly the issue that was the subject of my talk, and of my essay with Greg Lukianoff: Should class discussions be safe spaces in which students are shielded from ideas and statements that some of them find upsetting?
The only other preface I want to add is to repeat here the apology I added to the last post, a few days after publishing it:
My original draft of this post said that the boys were “bullied into submission by the girls with the blessing of the teachers.” But this was unfair and I regret it. The Centerville teachers I met were all very friendly to me, even after my talk. I think they could do more to counter the intimidation felt by students with minority viewpoints, but I have no reason to think that the teachers at Centerville are anything other than caring professionals who try to curate class discussions without inserting their own views. Indeed, the comments from “Centerville” students below, in the comment threads, indicate that the intimidation comes primarily from other students, not from the teachers. This is a pattern I have seen at universities as well.
1) Taylor Swift on November 24, 2015 at 7:35 pm
I am a student at “Centerville High School” so I feel qualified to counter a few of Jonathan Haidt’s points. His assertion that the questioning was “the most unremittingly hostile questioning I’ve ever had.” was not untrue. Many of the people asking questions barely even listened long enough to hear his response, only wanting to attack Haidt and somehow feel superior. The question, “so you think rape is ok?” was completely unfounded, and most of the audience groaned at it. I consider myself to be very liberal, and I agree that discussion rather than aggression and attack is the best way to approach these issues. However, I think Haidt exaggerated the “oppression” that males, or more specifically conservative males, feel at Centerville. His words were “bullied into submission by the girls, with the blessing of the teachers.” Bullied. What needs to be addressed here is the fact that for years, many girls are unconfident in the classroom, and discussions, particularly in STEM classes, are dominated by their male counterparts. I’ve attended Centerville since Middle School and can honestly say that many of my female classmates only found their true voices Freshman, Sophomore, or even junior year. Now that females do have a stronger presence in the classroom, we are being labeled as “aggressive,” and even “bullies.” It’s important to note, also, that in the wider world, males have a stronger voice and stronger presence–in government, in the workforce, in the media, and even sometimes in the home. Girls need an environment where they feel comfortable sharing their opinions, no matter how strong. That is not to say that the boys should be silenced. I agree with Haidt that there needs to be real discussion, and for that to happen, everyone needs to be respectful and responsive to others’ viewpoints. I also believe, like Haidt, that to have your viewpoints challenged is critical to growth and change; consequently, I think it’s hypocritical of Haidt to say that boys or conservative students are being bullied because of their opinions, because their beliefs need to be challenged just as much as liberal beliefs. Not attacked, but challenged. I really loved having Haidt as a speaker because, though I didn’t agree with everything he said, its really important that Centerville, and high schools and colleges around the country, open up discussion of more viewpoints.
[JH: This all hinges on the difference between girls speaking up and challenging boys, which is good, versus using Marcusian tactics to discredit one’s opponents by, for example, stating that they are sexist, or that they have no right to speak because they do not have the right kind of “lived experiences”]
2) High School Student on November 24, 2015 at 11:35 pm
As a student of ‘centerville high school’ as well, I can assure you this comment [by Taylor Swift] is completely true. While multiple questions were phrased as attacks towards Haidt personally, many of them were completely rational. In response to one question (about his annoyance towards people who are pushing women to be in more stem positions) he stated a very vague position on how women, no matter their environmental conditions in childhood, are still predisposed to not be in stem positions (genetically). This was not the only ‘sketchy’ point he made. The question about his condoning of rape, while completely unnecessary, was founded on his insensitivity towards the subject (which continued into many subjects, including race and gender).
His careful picking of data allowed his points to made clearly and succinctly in his mind. Questions that were too long or that had follow ups were completely ignored. In response to one of the first (albeit angry and unnecessary) questions, Haidt’s response was to tell the audience that in order to fully look at an argument, one had to look at both sides, something I (as someone who did believe in a large amount of what Haidt was saying) had to scoff at. His entire argument was founded on the idea that everyone being free to say whatever they want is the best thing possible for American schools, while being politically correct in all scenarios is the worst thing possible for American schools. Obviously there are positive and negative aspects to both. This completely contradicts his belief to look at both sides of an argument dispassionately, not to mention being hard, as students who do care about their education, to listen to.
Haidt’s talk was difficult to listen to. Even though I believe in almost all of his points (despite being part of many, although not all, of the minority groups mentioned) his inability to speak to us effectively (in a way that didn’t seem like he condoned rape) made it so that his argument was not relayed to us clearly. His blatant misunderstanding of his audience put him in the position to be attacked. One can say that he did that on purpose, to prove his point about shaking those who do walk on eggshells. But that doesn’t work. Telling defensive people their wrong doesn’t work. Sorry.
[JH: On the STEM issue: I was trying to tell the students about what I think is a major cause of women’s under-representation in STEM fields, even as women have achieved parity or more in most other academic fields: Prenatal testosterone shapes developing brains, thereby influencing what children later enjoy doing, and what kinds of careers they later choose to pursue; see here:
A) An essay by autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen
B) Gendered Occupational Interests: Prenatal Androgen Effects on Psychological Orientation to Things Versus People
C) A recent study that found a fairly strong preference for hiring women in STEM professorships
Should high school students be exposed to such research findings, or should they be protected?]
3) Carter M. on November 24, 2015 at 9:26 pm
As a student at Centerville High School who is willing to use their real name I would like to say first off how ashamed much of school is that that question was asked. The questioning of Jonathan Haidt when he came to speak during the main lecture was more reminiscent of a cross examination in a courtroom, rather than a questioning of ideas by curious students. The questions were malicious, designed to trip up Mr. Haidt and force him to apologize or backdown. (Something, to his credit, he did not do and handled with great poise) It is shameful that a guest of the school was treated in this way.
Addressing the point of “Taylor Swift,” I have most certainly been aggressively verbally confronted by classmates and teachers when I say an opinion that is not the norm, and I will note that it is not usually male classmates doing this. The issue is not that female students have a strong voice. All students should have a strong voice, it is essential to the learning process. The issue is when students use their voice to attack others in a harmful way and prevent a safe learning environment from forming. It is not an issue that points of view are challenged, and we agree on this, it is that they are attacked. The difference in our opinion is that in my experience, different opinions are attacked, and often.
As a conservative male the difference between when I express my opinions, and when a liberal does is stark. I do not have a problem with my beliefs being challenged, or even attacked. I in fact think that growing up constantly being challenged for my beliefs has made me a much better at defending them and not taking personal offense when they are challenged. The problem is that often only the conservative student, speak or opinion is challenged, while the liberal one is taken to be gospel. I would have no problem if everyones beliefs were challenged, but it is wrong that only mine, the conservative ones, are.
4) Courtenay Roche on November 25, 2015 at 12:11 am
Hi Carter! It’s actually Courtenay, if you must know, however I don’t think your mentioning of your name gives any more credibility to your argument. I do believe that you have been aggressively confronted, however I believe the majority of those confrontations happen in instances where others have more of a stake in the conversation than you. By this I mean that the conversation is one concerning, for example, women. Lets say its a discussion on abortion. Obviously the women will have very strong opinions because it is concerning their own bodily rights, and if your comment or opinion compromises that in any way, they may understandably be verbally aggressive. In that instances, you are entitled to your own opinion, however it is marginally less valid than that of a woman who the issue actually affects. This could be expanded to many different marginalized groups–people of color, religious groups, etc. This is certainly not to say that you deserve to be harassed, merely an observation that if someone is getting really angry with you it may be because it is about an issue that affects them more than it affects you, and it is very important to them. I still believe that all opinions need to be listened to and respected, however it is not necessarily “bullying” or “harassment” to have a very strong opinion on an issue and confront someone about it.
[JH: This is the bright line that identity politics teaches students to cross: Some people’s views are less valid because of their race and gender. This is the rhetorical move that encourages students to begin their arguments by emphasizing their prior victimization and suffering, just as Campbell and Manning said about victimhood culture. This is a key feature of intellectual life at Coddle U: you judge and attack the person, not the argument.]
5) Carter M on November 25, 2015 at 3:05 am
Courtenay, fancy seeing you here. I actually do believe that lending ones name to an argument gives it more credibility because one is not just asserting something behind a mask, they are attaching their name to their point. It gives the individual involved more skin in the game, so to speak, and requires a higher degree of investment on their part. Writing anonymously is one thing, attaching your credibility to an argument is another. (It lends the argument a fair amount of Ethos) But this is aside from the point.
It is interesting that you should bring up the issue of abortion because it could be very easily argued that the issue of abortion is not one of “women’s rights” but one of the “sanctity of human life.” Abortion is obviously a very difficult issue to talk about as even the basic premise of where to begin the argument often requires the acceptance of the opposition’s side.
For instance, is this a “women’s rights” issue or a “sanctity of human life.” Does life “begin at conception” or after “the viability of the fetus” as stated in RCW 9.02.110. Nonetheless, it is a deeply controversial and hot button topic for both sides. With one believing that the other hates women, and one believing the other side supports the murder of society’s most vulnerable, babies. Because of this, abortion absolutely can affect a man as much or more than a women depending on the situation of the individuals involved.
Nonetheless the issue is not having strong opinions on an issue or topic, but the way in which they are brought about. At “Centerville” they are systemically brought about in a negative and hostile way against conservatives and their view points. I agree with you that passionate debate can often be had without it resulting in bullying or harassment, however all to often this is not the case.
Regardless of one’s emotional convictions or otherwise an academic environment is an inappropriate environment to take out that frustration on a peer. Disagreeing with someone is not an excuse to be unkind or a bully. Allowing such behavior on the basis of “emotional distress” or dislike of someone or their opinions is not only wrong but sets an incredibly bad precedent that ones actions are justified because they believe them to be. Just because someone is offended or feels something does not mean they are right.
[JH: Carter is describing the “emotional reasoning” that Lukianoff and I discussed in The Coddling of the American Mind. If it is allowed and encouraged in High School, then students will take it with them to college.]
6) ThinkUp on November 26, 2015 at 2:55 am
Thank you for the thoughtful comment, [addressed to a non-centerville commenter who noted that being victimized does not confer the right to later become a bully] I would certainly agree on your opinion of bullying. I am not sure if your questions about bullying reflect the “intimidation” of males that Jonathan Haidts’ article mentioned, but if it is, I have a few thoughts on it. First off, while I go to Centerville High, there are a lot of differing opinions about his talk, and mine isn’t shared by everyone. I have read Mr. Haidt’s Atlantic article, and it brought up some very good points about higher education and whether students were too coddled. But I think there is a difference between being bullied and becoming more aware. You ask about a cycle of bullies and the oppressed, switching sides. But maybe when we consider issues in that light, we miss the point. If I try to think of policies of oppression from the past, they’d probably come up as policies benefiting white, straight, males. I’m not saying males were all bullies, but the right to vote, hold jobs, marry whom you want…the list could go on. Now things, gratefully, are much better in the U.S., but we definitely could still be making progress. Society is still set up to advantage straight white males-not as blatantly, but it is easier to notice when the inequality affects you. So does this measure at all to the uncomfortable feeling people with privilege (who unconsciously receive those societal benefits) feel when they start realizing how that might make their answers be offensive to another? It is good that we can start recognizing this, but its also good to feel a bit awkward sometimes–that means we are learning! Jonathan Haidt’s Strengthen U professors should agree that having our viewpoints challenged is good for our growth. It isn’t acceptable to shut down others opinions, and if that is happening, we can fix it, however, I don’t think this is an example of cycles of bullying. If this is our next biggest complaint (not that I think it is, especially with all of the news recently about racial conflicts) I would say we are moving in the right direction.
[JH: I think this is an interesting and valid point, that boys (or anyone) who claim that they are being attacked might be over-interpreting their own discomfort at having their views challenged; they could be engaging in “emotional reasoning” as well.]
7) First Hand on November 25, 2015 at 11:46 pm
I was a 14-year-old female student at “Centerville” in 9th grade. It was an election year. When voicing my support for a conservative candidate, an aggressive classmate called me an idiot. Another called me a racist for not supporting Obama, even though my rationale centered on economic policies.
Teachers were openly and uniformly liberal (you could tell by the posters hanging in their rooms and the stickers on their cars). Their clear support of a single viewpoint seemed to fuel the righteousness that came at me from my fellow students. One student pulled me aside and said she worried I was being bullied and suggested I keep my views to myself. I didn’t want to (or couldn’t resist) and found myself in a constant state of conflict. After seeing a political sticker on my binder, a student in biology shoved my books to the ground and called me stupid. I don’t blame him – he was only 14 too. The climate at “Centerville” fueled his thinking. There were students with conservative views, but only the boldest spoke up.
As weeks went by, I grew depressed. The contrast was too great between this school and my family. At home, differing opinions were the norm and my own parents often openly and cheerfully disagreed on politics. It was more than I was equipped to handle.
Eventually I confided in an advisor about my stress. She was kind and acknowledged the hostile political environment at “Centerville”. Then, she too advised me to lay low as tempers might diffuse after the election. So much for encouraging everyone to share their own opinions.
In then end, I transferred out after 9th grade. Before I left, I penned a letter to the head of school about how I felt. I wrote that the school valued tolerance, but in my opinion, tolerance was extended only to approved opinions. Then I tucked the letter away in my desk where it still sits today. I had learned when to keep views to myself.
8) Jake K on November 27, 2015 at 12:12 am
Hey First Hand,
I’m a current student of Centerville High and I am very sorry for the things you went through. I am shocked to hear that you went through these things so recently at a place like Centerville. Centerville, at least now, seems like a much more inclusive environment than it was when you attended, as I’ve never seen any of the bullying you described. I’m trying to remember seeing political posters in classrooms, but have found that the only ones I remember seeing in my time at Centerville have been very non-partisan, or from many decades ago (in history classrooms, where we learned about those elections). Which classrooms did you see these posters in, or which teachers posted them? Please only respond to this if you feel you can answer the question to me without revealing the identity of the teachers or school to the rest of the internet.
9) Ethiopia on November 25, 2015 at 11:46 pm
Hi, I was the one who asked the question that you quoted above: “So you think rape is OK?” I think though you quoted what I said, you left the context and other necessary information out. Before my question you stated that you didn’t encourage the use of trigger warnings. I disagreed with your point from the beginning, but I was open to understanding the reasoning behind your statement. As you continued, you mentioned that you thought trigger warnings were meant to precede things that were considered “terrible”. You even gave the example that people often put trigger warnings in front of mentions of rape even though there was no scientific evidence that proved that people could be “re-triggered”. It was this point that pushed me into my emotions. I felt as if your comment diminished the experiences and feelings of those who have been traumatized and especially those who have experienced such a traumatizing violation like rape. I felt that your point minimized rape to an extent where you found it unnecessary to label it as triggering. Thus, it was not “terrible enough”. Paired with your previous point this pushed me to ask what was your stance on rape and whether you thought it was OK. I felt as if you didn’t express what’s considered “terrible enough” to need a warning. I do acknowledge that my question didn’t express my entire thought process and I apologize that this caused confusion.
Still, my original opinion on your presentation has not changed. I think that you as a white male shouldn’t be responsible for making the rules on how we must discuss topics like race and gender. I do not mean that you are not allowed to and I am not trying to silence your free speech. Your ideas come from a point of privilege, and biases are inevitably attached to your ideas. These biases also come from a point of privilege. No matter how many articles, books, or journals you read you will never be able to fully understand the struggles of those of us who are not privileged. This means your ideas, frankly, don’t matter as much as those who have lived a life as an underprivileged person. In my opinion, from your point of view you cannot see the whole picture.
These are my thoughts, and in no way am I saying that I’m right.
[JH: Perhaps there was a misunderstanding. I certainly did not say that some things were so terrible that they deserved trigger warnings, but rape was not one of them. I oppose the use of trigger warnings across the board. Note again how the social category of a speaker is used to augment or discount the value of the speaker’s ideas. Note also that the exchange rate for valuing identities is determined by one political faction. This is straight out of Marcuse, and is incompatible with the kind of viewpoint diversity we advocate here at HeterdoxAcademy.]
10) Ethiopia on November 26, 2015 at 1:06 pm
[in response to other commenters who said that she is very privileged]
I never said I didn’t have any privilege. I am a person of color and a girl. In this way, I am underprivileged. Jonathan Haidt proposed a new “set of rules” on how we discuss race and gender. Racism negatively affects me. Racism positively affects Haidt. Should he decide what can and can’t be said? Sexism negatively affects me. Some sexism positively affects Haidt. Should he decide how we talk about it? Why should someone who hasn’t experienced my struggle make the rules on how we discuss it?
11) Jake K on November 26, 2015 at 11:48 pm
Hey Ethiopia, it’s me, Jake. As far as I understand, Dr. Haidt wasn’t proposing a new set of rules of discussion. His talk, and more specifically the after-talk with the eggshells and polling, was designed to point out a problem in the way that we talk, and the way we perceive it. I remember seeing you at the after-talk, where everyone agreed that we want a place where discussion is open and free. You might have arrived after he asked the questions, but he was correct in saying everyone claimed to want an open academic environment, and that some people felt that it was not open. I believe his main point was just showing that there is a problem, that discussion is not equal. Now, when I raised my hand and said I sometimes feel like I’m walking on eggshells, that opinion came also from the fact that I don’t believe I am as informed as I should be on topics of race and gender. I often don’t want to share my opinion, because I believe I could be very wrong and don’t want to offend someone. I’m sure if I knew more about whatever topic was being discussed, and had a stronger argument, I would be much more comfortable discussing it. Several people above have argued with you about privilege, and I think I’ve found the point you’re arguing over. They’re claiming you said you didn’t have privilege, while you’ve said you did. I believe the misunderstanding came from the point at which you said “No matter how many articles, books, or journals you read you will never be able to fully understand the struggles of those of us who are not privileged,” which heavily implies that you yourself are not privileged. Based on what you said afterwards (“I didn’t say I didn’t have any privilege”) I think your earlier statement was misstated, which led to confusion and a bit of uncivilized behavior.
12) (Witty Username Here) on November 26, 2015 at 2:06 am
As a student at Centerville High School and a liberal, I enjoyed Mr. Haidt’s speech thoroughly as it was a thought-provoking experience for me. I don’t think many people actually disagreed with the fundamentals of his main point; most of us agree that we should not be coddled and that the overly PC culture emerging at some colleges is over the top. As a result, I feel that the majority of students agreed with his speech in general, hence the standing ovation at the end. That being said, there was a very vocal group of students who strongly disagreed with Mr. Haidt, resulting in the ridiculous question about him supporting rape. However, I believe that it was partially the fault of Mr. Haidt for inciting many students to anger by portraying his argument in an overly biased, polarized, and extreme manner that caused an irrational and emotion-based reaction from some members of the audience. I feel that if Haidt had wanted to convince us of the validity of the points he could have used a more moderate, logical approach rather than immediately rushing to extremes, something that outraged a few people who immediately forgot the logic in his arguments and went on the offensive, something that caused the discussion to deteriorate. While I enjoyed his presentation immensely, I would like to address some of the points in this article. For one, I think it’s ridiculous to say that the girls bully the boys. As a boy, I feel perfectly comfortable sharing my opinion, although I concede that that might be different if my views were more centrist or conservative. The part about the girls doing this supposed bullying with the “blessing of their teachers” is also, at least to the extent of my knowledge, false. During one discussion about how our cultural backgrounds effected our world views, I implied that all of us in the class supported the legalization of gay marriage, an assumption I had made based on the extremely liberal composition of our school. Our teacher quickly reminded us to not make assumptions about peoples’ political views as it could make them uncomfortable about sharing their opinions. Teachers have consistently made a strong effort to impartially moderate discussions and keep people from getting too out of hand. I’d have to agree about walking on eggshells when dealing with political ideology, race, and gender, although I don’t believe it’s as negative in the context of race in gender, as differing opinions can easily become discriminatory. On politics, however, I absolutely think the non-liberal members of our community should feel comfortable sharing their views – debating things like foreign policy or the ACA leaves room only for growth. Finally, I’d like to add that I oppose the overly PC culture that is emerging at many universities. Cancelling a yoga class due to cultural appropriation is ridiculous. Is eating ramen “cultural appropriation” from the Japanese? That girl’s outrageous outburst at Yale was, quite frankly, frightening in its irrationality. UCLA’s insane list of microaggressions (“America is a land of opportunity,” “Speak up more,” and “America is a melting pot,” to name but a few) is perplexing; it takes serious analysis to see how one could take offense from some of the statements included.
I thank Mr. Haidt for taking the time to visit our school and wish him all the best, even if I may disagree with some of what he says.
[JH: Thank you, Witty Username. It was your comment that led me to remove and apologize for the phrase “with the blessing of the teachers”]
13) Centerville Student on November 27, 2015 at 7:19 pm
Most reasonable people would agree that a diversity of ideas is good. Most reasonable people would also agree that hurting others through words is bad. As a Centerville student, I have observed that immediately after the talk, our school split into two opposite camps.
One side believed that in an exchange of information, diversity of ideas is absolutely essential. For the most part, people in this group agreed with most of Mr. Haidt’s points. Most people in this group were glad that Mr. Haidt came to speak. It is important to note that people on this side also believed that ensuring people did not feel hurt was a critical part of discussions.
The other side believed that ensuring that people were not hurt in discussions was vital. They also believed that viewpoint diversity was important. They believed that Mr. Haidt did not believe that making sure people were not hurt in discussions is important. In addition, they believed that Mr. Haidt was hostile towards women, especially in his statement that although women are just as capable as men, they are genetically less inclined to explore STEM. The majority of people in this group felt that this was incorrect. This group also felt that Mr. Haidt implicitly expressed negative views about transgender people. While this group supported the idea that viewpoint diversity was important, they felt that Mr. Haidt was expressing the view that women and minority groups should not be protected from hurtful ideas. This group felt that Mr. Haidt was not the ideal person to deliver his ideas about viewpoint diversity.
I think that the only disagreement our school had was over Mr. Haidt’s beliefs, not over whether viewpoint diversity or protecting against hostility is important. Indeed, both groups at our school believed that in discussions, it is vital to have a diversity of viewpoints expressed in a manner that does not distress others. This is not to say that everyone fits into the two primary groups at our school. Certainly, there are people who fall outside this. However, based on what I have observed, at Centerville the vast majority students fall into one of these two camps.
[JH: This strikes me as a very perceptive observation, and helps us to wrap up the entire discussion. The crux of the dispute is indeed whether one believes that teachers and students should be vigilant about ensuring that “people were not hurt in discussions.” But there are different ways of being hurt. I believe that ad hominem arguments and moralistic attacks on students for the ideas that they express must be stamped out, and it is the teachers’ job to set that norm. Threats, insults, and slurs have no place in the classroom. Students should learn to criticize the idea, not the person. But what about ideas that some students find upsetting? Should students be protected from such ideas? Should they be given trigger warnings and safe spaces? The question took center stage when, in response to a students’ comment about rampant sexism as shown by the under-representation of women in STEM fields, I noted that under-representation does not by itself demonstrate sexism. I told the students about research on how prenatal sex hormones shape the brain while they are shaping the body. For evidence, see here, and see here. Many students were visibly upset by my suggestion that there could be some innate sex differences, on average. If that idea is upsetting to some students, should they be protected from hearing it? Or should students be exposed to arguments and evidence about all the possible causes of gender inequality? At Coddle U. the answer is no. At Strengthen U., it is yes.]