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Recommitting to the Pursuit of Truth

We were honored to have Jonathan Haidt, board chair and co-founder of the Heterodox Academy, speak at UVA this week on “The Meltdown of Universities and Ideas for Rebuilding Them.” His main thesis was that American universities once had a world-class brand based on intellectual excellence and absolute honesty. This led to tremendous levels of trust by consumers. His recent polling numbers on the “meltdown” of higher education’s brand were jaw-dropping. What happened? Over the last decade or so, many colleges strayed from a

commitment to truth to one of social justice. Identitarianism, as Haidt put it, explains why honesty is now punished if one questions beliefs held sacred by others. That’s because these days, on many campuses, one’s racial, ethnic, or gender identity comes first — before excellence or knowledge or truth. And it explains why plagiarism seems to have become so rampant in certain quarters, because identity — not truth — comes first at schools he called “Social Justice Universities.” Hence we heard the odd phrase “my truth” from the former president of Harvard at the December 2023 Congressional hearings.


Haidt pointed out that there are other factors at play as well in this meltdown: political and business elites controlling our culture; social media’s pervasive effects; mental illness among young people; and a feeling that “Silence is Safer” among students and professors. I’ve seen all three in my classroom over the last five years.


What to do? Haidt had a number of suggestions, including requiring all incoming college students read Seth Gillihan’s book, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple and partnering with the Constructive Dialogue Institute and its training for college faculty, which I’ve taken and highly recommend. I hope UVA will consider doing both for all students — not just first years — and faculty. Most of all, Haidt urged a return to a commitment to truth at all universities. His colleague at Heterodox Academy, John Tomasi, argues that curiosity recedes both truth and knowledge, and that’s true, too. Promoting all three values will take courage by college leaders, because it means swimming upstream against current faculty and administrators. Here at UVA, that courage is part of our history. Our founder put it well: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Let’s not be afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead.

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