As the school year opens, the debate over new or expanded “racial equity” programs is likely to take center stage at many Minnesota K-12 schools. The goal of these programs, we’re told, is to promote racial harmony and student thriving.

But what if, in reality, they are producing anxiety, depression, lack of initiative and a sure route to permanent social conflict?

That’s the startling diagnosis I heard recently from a teacher — a self-described “recovering wokester.” He told me he had first enthusiastically supported his school’s ramped-up “equity” focus, because like most educators, he is empathetic and deeply concerned about the racial learning gap.

But he quickly became alarmed at evidence the new approach wasn’t performing as promised. It divided students into “us-vs.-them” groups based on race; fueled prickly hypersensitivity to often well-intentioned classmates’ “micro-aggressions;” and sought to shield kids from any idea or experience that might disturb or challenge them.

The result was heightened friction, anxiety and ill will, he said. Meanwhile, nonwhite students’ learning failed to improve, and real education, which requires the free exchange of ideas, became impossible.

What had gone wrong? For this teacher, revelation came when he read “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” a 2018 bestseller by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff. The book convinced him that the harms he was seeing were both real and inevitable, and that our schools must urgently rethink and replace the faddish new take on “equity.”

For me, what made the book uniquely powerful was the mountain of social science data these self-labeled progressive authors muster to document the dangers of our schools’ misguided — if well-intentioned — approach to equity.

Haidt and Lukianoff begin by describing the mental health crisis that currently afflicts young Americans. Today’s K-12 students struggle with unprecedented rates of anxiety and depression and, on average, lag well behind previous generations in maturity and readiness for adult responsibilities.

A major reason, say the authors, is a debilitating “cult of safetyism” that increasingly hobbles our schools and society. “Many teachers have been unknowingly teaching a generation of students to engage in the mental habits commonly seen in people who suffer from anxiety and depression,” they write.

Today’s trendy racial equity theory will inevitably worsen this mental health crisis, they explain, because it teaches three “great untruths” that have produced it.

The first untruth is that “Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

This is “equity” theory’s central claim. It presents American life as a zero-sum struggle for power and resources between whites and racial minorities, and portrays malignant “white supremacy” as the cause of any adversity a nonwhite person may experience.

“If someone wanted to create an environment of perpetual anger and intergroup conflict,” promoting this idea “would be an effective way to do it,” warn Haidt and Lukianoff.

Why? Because human beings are hard-wired for tribalism. Equity theory activates the tribal switch, and so amps up a destructive “us-vs.-them” mentality. Intergroup threats can create intense pressure on people to dehumanize opposing groups, and to prove our own group loyalty by “embracing and defending” groupthink and group norms, the authors say.

This stifles both the “creative mixing of people and ideas” and individuals’ freedom “to construct lives of their own choosing.”

The second great untruth is “Emotional Reasoning. Never question your feelings.”

An example is the “Melanin Project,” a typical “equity” lesson that an Edina elementary school has used. It instructs K-2 children to trace and color their hands with their skin color, and glue them on a class poster that proclaims “Stop thinking your skin color is better than anyone else’s!”

Lessons like this stir up anger and resentment, and invite children to act on the basis of these powerful emotions.

But negative emotions — if not subjected to reasoned analysis and the search for counterevidence — are not reliable guides to reality, caution Haidt and Lukianoff. They produce “cognitive distortions” such as “negative filtering” (focusing only on bad things) and “hostile attribution bias” (seeing hostile motives where none are intended).

These debilitating mental habits can blind children to the world’s nuance and complexity, impair their friendships and ability to work with others, and promote a destructive “call-out culture” at school that requires “constant vigilance, fear and self-censorship.”

The last great untruth is that young people are so fragile they must be sheltered from any experience that feels “emotionally unsafe.”

“Equity” theory maintains that children can be harmed by reading a Dr. Seuss book that someone deems racist, or attending a school named after Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota’s first territorial governor.

Haidt and Lukianoff deplore such “grossly expanded concepts of trauma and safety.” Kids are not fragile, the authors explain, but “anti-fragile.” Their muscles need challenges and stressors to grow strong, and their minds need the same to develop the courage, resilience and self-confidence they will require to cope with life’s unavoidable risks and threats.

Teaching children that “failures, insults, and painful experiences will do lasting damage” is not only false, but will render them easily hurt, overly fearful and prone to seeing themselves as victims, the authors write. Instead, schools should help kids develop their innate abilities to grow and learn from such experiences.

Here’s the takeaway for teachers from this invaluable book: “If you encourage students to find more things offensive — leading them to experience more negative impacts — and you also tell them that whoever says or does the things they find offensive are ‘aggressors’ who have committed acts of bigotry against them, you are probably fostering feelings of victimization, anger and hopelessness in your students.”

“They will come to see the world and their school as a hostile place where things never seem to get better.”

Our schools should teach young people to behave charitably toward others, not to reflexively attribute hostile motives to them. Instead of victimhood, schools should foster a culture of dignity that helps students develop the self-possession they must have to withstand pressure to cede control over their mental state to others.

Unless we reject today’s false vision of equity, we will set our children up for lives of mental distress and self-doubt, rather than productivity and happiness.