At President Paula Johnson’s inauguration last Friday, students heard uplifting messages about Wellesley’s mission to educate women to make a difference in the world, including shattering glass ceilings and promoting equity in various professional arenas. Social psychology professor Jonathan Haidt of New York University gave a lecture last week that challenged President Johnson’s vision for Wellesley. Haidt asserted that the view of social justice as a sacred facet of colleges was incompatible with higher education’s pursuit of truth. He argued that similar to institutions centered around belief in Christianity, schools like Wellesley have unquestioningly adopted the cause of social justice. He held that policies designed to minimize inequities on campuses have created a “victimhood culture” that fosters dependency and demoralization. Identifying a few social justice driven policies, the professor argued that trigger warnings, affirmative action and accusations of sexist disparities weaken students through “special treatment.” The audience’s response to his lecture was immediate and forceful.
Despite Haidt’s assertions, not only do I believe that truth and social justice are compatible with institutions of higher learning, but I believe one is the catalyst for the other. Scientific research has lead to an increased understanding of the deep-seated biases facing women and people of color, which bolsters the case for an institutional orientation toward social justice. At this point, evidence of disparities and discrimination necessitate actions to minimize inequity — and not just on college campuses.
Haidt’s use of statistics and graphs omitted important findings that he, as a social psychologist, should have been well aware of. This was particularly evident in his analysis of the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, in which he posited that perhaps men and women have different interests and that different outcomes do not imply different treatment in professional environments. His interpretation of the data conveniently left out decades of scholarship in women’s and gender studies about the gendering of children, in economics about patterns of care work and in social psychology about stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is the negative effect of internalized stereotypes on test performance in a stereotype-relevant area for women and minorities, which is particularly known to depress women’s performance on math and science tests.
Despite the academic consensus on the concept of stereotype threat, Haidt brought up the blowback to Larry Summers’ controversial speech about the lack of women in STEM as evidence of the harmful effects of social justice on pursuit of the truth. The speech, which Haidt called “excellent scholarship,” explained the gender disparity in STEM by identifying that there are more men than women with IQ scores that are significantly higher than average. As a result, he said, more men than women are intelligent enough to excel in the sciences. In my psychology classes, we have been taught to doubt any test that systematically delivers higher scores to one demographic — and that’s not social justice, that’s just best practice. For example, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale, also known as the IQ test, has a bias toward European Americans that systematically delivers 12 to 15 point lower scores to minorities. This discrepancy points to an important inequality to be investigated, not a difference in interests or innate capabilities.
I was shocked to hear these opinions presented at Wellesley, not because they were unusual, but because they so twisted what I have learned in my classes here across many disciplines. I believe that different and controversial opinions should be welcome at Wellesley, and I think it is valuable that the Freedom Project fosters these conversations. However, there is a difference between constructive dialogue and the deliberate presentation of misleading opinions. Haidt advocated for relentless pursuit of truth in universities but seemed to be intentionally disclosing only enough data to support his hypothesis while intentionally excluding the research that has identified unique barriers for women and people of color. Instead of worrying about the scientific results that have proven the worth of social justice, Haidt suggested pursuing truth by reading classic texts by Jesus, Buddha and Dale Carnegie. How telling that he valued archaic writings by men over women’s lived experiences.
Haidt referenced the overwhelming skew towards liberal ideology among college professors as evidence of a stifling social justice hegemony on campuses. Perhaps this disparity simply reflects that many people whose life’s work is to understand the world have come to an evidence-based consensus on the truth — that an orientation toward social justice is necessary to correct the biases and prejudices held by us all.
Photo courtesy of The Freedom Project