Students Are Walking on Eggshells and It Must Stop
I’ve been pretty lucky over the past few months.
I’ve had the opportunity to do some teaching and guest lecturing at Harvard, MIT and Stanford. Turns out our curmudgeonly grandfathers (those of the “Get off my lawn!” variety) are totally wrong: we don’t need to worry about young people these days. The kids are alright.
In fact, they’re generally much better than merely alright. In every instance, I have been struck by how engaged, how funny, and how very hardworking my students have been.
What also stood out, however, was the distinct feeling that university campuses today are, to some extent, environments of fear. Students are living in an eggshell world, one so fragile that strong opinions, contrarian thoughts, and heated debate are treated as the sharp-edged pebbles that would shatter it entirely, and so are never to be picked up. And it’s an atmosphere that is being created by both the universities and the students themselves – out of earnestness, passion, a desire to protect and be protected, it’s not clear. It’s hard to pinpoint the why of it precisely. What’s far easier is seeing its effects.
The defeat of ideological exploration. College is supposed to be an intellectual safe space in that you can try on different ideas or philosophies, without commitment, and see how they suit you. In fact, it’s the perfect time to do it: in many programs, students are required to read a wide range of provocative thinkers, consider their merits, and tease out their arguments. Doing so is literally a grade requirement. But today’s atmosphere forces students to be too considered, too bland, too polite, ultimately encouraging a too-swift adoption of the easiest ideologies to digest and regurgitate. It’s far better – if messier, if sometimes even potentially hurtful – to go through the process of the tough conversations, the passionate back and forth, that helps people figure out what’s truly meaningful to them.
The chilling effect on speech. Intellectual bravery is bold, even brazen. When I push my students on this, they feel relieved to have the room to talk frankly about controversial legal, social and business ideas – and they have seized the opportunity to speak brilliantly and openly about these concepts. But too often, too many other students feel the opposite of emboldened. They’re shut down and shut out of conversations.
Of course, there are types of speech that should not be tolerated – bigotry, hate speech, etc. But the environment today seems to encourage us to feel outrage, to feel disrespected, if someone raises their voice in passion, if someone comes back at us with an argument we feel is wrong. A blanket labeling of people as hateful, for example – in cases where they’re merely offering a point of view that runs contrary to our own – is the fastest way to shut down dialogue. When we do that, we infantilize our young leaders. We’re failing to normalize the natural push-pull, the jostling of ideas, that is part and parcel of a university environment. We’re sending a message that certain types of disagreement are wrong and consequently, we’re encouraging the oppression of nuanced speech.
The ability to confront the real world. Trigger warnings, protests, and the like have their place. But they are not appropriate or wise all the time. It’s one thing – and a good thing – to protest a university’s poor handling of sexual assault by carrying a mattress as a silent, evocative symbol. It’s another to go after a college’s cafeteria because the General Tso’s chicken is culturally inappropriate. When we spend so much time looking for reasons to feel disenfranchised, we can no longer clearly discern when real disempowerment is taking place. As a result, we may fail to put our energies where they’re really needed.
The world outside the confines of campus is a big one. Not every idea encountered there will be gentle. Not every person blandly accepting or apologetic. Universities are readying students for the real world. That is an urgent part of their charter. But the wrap-you-in-cotton-wool approach to hard subjects is failing students greatly, inhibiting their ability to navigate such tricky waters in ways that are intellectually and morally honest.
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