College Students: Coddled or Constructive Activists?

      If you walked on many a university campus today you might conclude that national and international issues confronting society have taken a back seat to other concerns.

To be sure, some college students express concerns about the worries of the world (wars, economic and racial disparities, immigrants on perilous journeys, climate change, terrorists, a worrisome presidential election), but these are not as prominent on campuses as they once were.

Back in the late Sixties, most college campuses were hotbeds of angry ferment and demonstrations from the left and right about the war in Vietnam, racism and other social issues. Students were invariably at tables with strongly worded literature and polemics.

Lest you think that today’s students are ignorant of prevalent political and societal unrest, let me assure you that this is not the case. In this era of 24/7 internet and media, they are more aware than most of us were at their ages.

You might also notice, however, that all is not serene, and that there is as much ferment and anger as ever. You have likely read recent newspaper stories about student-faculty confrontations at Oberlin, Yale University, and the University of Chicago, but these are in fact occurring at many colleges.

In these events, outspoken students are extremely concerned about their personal travails and social pressures on campus. They are frustrated about perceived personal slights and injustices, psychologically toxic environments, political correctness and bruised feelings.

Students on many campuses are clamoring for protection from psychological “triggers” in the curriculum or in campus announcements. They are demanding designated “safe zones,” where they can feel secure, protected from those whose words or tones of voice they find distasteful, unacceptable or even threatening. Many also expect personal attention for their feelings and vulnerabilities.

Some complaints have to do with perceived hectoring by faculty and administrators about how to act in certain situations. They say they’re being infantilized, not treated respectfully as adults. On the other hand, there are demands that colleges provide individual attention for their personal and pedagogic difficulties.

Others criticize professors either for not being culturally sensitive to their particular group (religionrace, language, dress, gender or gender identity), or for pandering in offensive ways, trying too hard to assuage perceived offense.

In a few of the filmed vociferous confrontations, indignant students were shown yelling, swearing, and sobbing.  They felt unheard and they upbraided faculty and administrators for being dense or duplicitous, or even dangerous and evil. There have been threats of lawsuits, removal of donor funding, or even violence.

This not meant to be a litany of complaints about contemporary students, who are an impressive generation. College is a major step in their personal maturation and socialization, and most students appreciate the opportunities higher education offers.

College can also be a challenge, an exciting yet unnerving cauldron of new experiences, people and ideas. Students experience conflicts and clashes within their own evolving identities, relationships and value.

The Right tells them to “Grow Up!” or “Suck It Up!” The Left says that students have to be heard and their grievances addressed.

There are legitimate grievances which students can and should give voice to. Indeed, we should expect and encourage demonstrations and confrontations as part and parcel of this seminal growth experience.

But insolence, bullying or threats are unacceptable from the students…or from their elders, for that matter.

Colleges and universities have vital and challenging social responsibilities, and many are under fiscal and/or political pressures. In spite of this, most have actually been attentive and responsive to the needs of students. There are psychological counseling services, medical clinics, tutoring facilities and personnel, special learning and test-taking accommodations, and even dedicated “safe zones.”

There is active communication between student leaders and faculty, and student participation in committees which address grievances or requests for improvements.

Faculty and administrative staff undergo repeated “sensitivity training” on issues like civility and respect, cross-cultural awareness, systemic and unconscious racial or other biases, gender variations and equality, and psychological needs.

Colleges and universities are far from perfect: Costs are increasingly prohibitive, and there are indeed some for-profit “degree mills” which eschew thoughtful education and scholarship.

But the vast majority of our educational institutions are trying assiduously to give their students enriching scholarly, psychological and social experiences. More open dialogue (as opposed to ad hominem attacks) and empathy would go a long way toward bringing mutual understanding and improvements.

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