This week I asked a group of students at the University of Chicago a question I’m asking students around the country: Who are your heroes? There’s always a long pause after I ask. But eventually one of the students suggested Steven Pinker. Another chimed in Jonathan Haidt. There was general nodding around the table.
That was interesting. Both men are psychology professors, at Harvard and N.Y.U., who bravely stand against what can be the smothering orthodoxy that inhibits thought on campus, but not from the familiar conservative position.
One way Pinker does it is by refusing to be pessimistic. There is a mood across America, but especially on campus, that in order to show how aware of social injustice you are, you have to go around in a perpetual state of indignation, negativity and righteous rage. Pinker refuses to do this. In his new book, “Enlightenment Now,” he argues that this pose is dishonest toward the facts.
For example, we’re all aware of the gloomy statistics around wage stagnation and income inequality, but Pinker contends that we should not be nostalgic for the economy of the 1950s, when jobs were plentiful and unions strong. A third of American children lived in poverty. Sixty percent of seniors had incomes below $1,000 a year. Only half the population had any savings in the bank at all.