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February 14, 2011
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It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry over the demand by U.S. college students for “trigger warnings” to alert them that something they’re about to read or see in one of their classes might traumatize them—apparently a new trend, according to the New York Times. Ditto for off-beat campus sculptures, placards displayed by protesters and more.
Poor dears. These are the same kids who would riot in the streets if their colleges asserted any form of in loco parentis when it comes to such old-fashioned concerns as inebriation and fornication. God forbid they should be treated as responsible, independent adults! After all, they’re old enough to vote, to drive, even (though it’s unlikely) to join the army.
Yet they want their professors to shield their precious eyes from anything potentially offensive. In the words of a course-syllabus guide produced by Oberlin College’s Sexual Offense Policy Task Force, that means flagging “all forms of violence” and examples of “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” Although the Oberlin faculty has temporarily tabled the document, the school’s Office of Equity Concerns already admonishes instructors to “take steps to make the classroom more inclusive for … individuals of all genders, gender identities, gender expressions and sexual orientations.”
Just how, aside from inviting all of one’s students to take their seats, is a teacher supposed to manage that? Does the history professor refrain from mentioning that Hitler killed homosexuals as well as Jews? Does the English teacher shun James Baldwin and George Eliot because one was gay and the other was a woman using a man’s name? Avoid Toni Morrison because one of her books includes a rape scene? Not teach astronomy because just two of the 23 best-known constellations are recognizably female? When you think about it, almost any subject, perhaps save for pure math, could make some student feel less than fully included on grounds that have something vaguely to do with gender.
And that’s not the end of it. In March, a pregnant prof at the University of California, Santa Barbara tried to wreck signs wielded by anti-abortion protesters showing aborted fetuses. The professor was charged with vandalism—but then was supported by 1,000 student petitioners who demanded the university crack down on “potentially trigger-inducing content,” according to the Times. Meanwhile, hundreds of young women at Wellesley College asserted this past winter that a piece of art—a statue of an underwear-clad man—should be removed from the campus because it “has triggered memories of sexual assault amongst some students.”
For Pete’s sake.
Yes, obviously, abortion and sexual assault are serious, delicate issues, but part of going to college and becoming an adult is learning to deal with different points of view, unfamiliar kinds of art, conflicting opinions on the human condition. As a Wall Street Journal columnist reminded us the other day, “No consequential idea ever failed to offend someone.” Should colleges exclude such ideas in favor of political correctness?
These and kindred episodes are occurring just as a string of U.S. colleges have also been forced by their students to back away from potentially controversial commencement speakers and guest lecturers. (In some cases, would-have-been speakers simply withdrew rather than face protesters.) Prominent recent examples include Condoleezza Rice (Rutgers), Christine Lagarde (Smith), Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Brandeis), Robert Birgeneau (Haverford) and Charles Murray (Azusa Pacific University). A few days back, Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan, in response to student protests, defended forthcoming convocation speaker Mike Johnston, an alumnus of the school and now a Colorado state senator—a Democrat, mind you—who has had the temerity to support such policies as student testing, teacher evaluations and tenure limits. Bravo for Ryan. But the campus norm is to cave rather than face down one’s students, even when the most sacrosanct doctrines of higher education—academic freedom, freedom of expression, the quest for truth—are endangered.
American campuses haven’t witnessed this much “activism” since the heady days of the late 1960s, when buildings were being “occupied,” professors intimidated and deans confronted. Most of that had, at least loosely, to do with the Vietnam War. Today’s version doesn’t seem to be about any large national dispute so much as a generalized kindling of political correctness, self-absorption and—yes, I’ll say it—spoiled-bratism.
These are kids—and we’re talking about full-time “traditional” students on four-year campuses, not the job-holding, family-supporting, career-minded folks more apt to be found in community colleges, trade schools and the University of Phoenix—who have long been accustomed to getting their own way with just about everything, hovered over and indulged by their parents, praised (and grade-inflated) by their teachers and carefully cushioned from every form of risk, adversity and hardship.
What’s more, they are not exactly consumed by academic obligations in their colleges anymore, where the average time spent actually studying has dwindled to a meager 15 hours a week, even as semesters get shorter, weekends lengthen and classes start later in the morning. So why not take some of that surplus time and energy—fueled by copious food options in campus dining facilities and strengthened with the help of elaborate exercise and recreation facilities—and deploy it trying to understand rather than protest things and people that irk them? Might they not make a better investment of their parents’ (and taxpayers’ and donors’) many dollars by reading books containing knowledge (and conclusions) that they don’t already possess? By seriously listening to, even talking with—dare I say it—the likes of Condi Rice and Charles Murray?
Maybe not, for such unfamiliar and provocative views might make them, precious as they are, feel unwelcome, excluded, even distressed. And they surely don’t want that. Let’s face it. A growing portion of today’s student population, at least on elite campuses, holds expectations that are both schizy and spoiled: They should be free to do absolutely anything they want without institutional barriers or interference of any kind, yet the institution must protect them from every conceivable sort of harm or upset. Try to thread that needle. While you’re at it, write a very large check to pay for your child’s opportunity to benefit from four years in such a high-status center of learning.
And consider what the nation faces when this crop of prissy, protected and self-absorbed young people start running for office, leading the country, making foreign and domestic policies. Who will shelter them from everything they don’t already believe and welcome? How will they deal with a Putin or an Assad? A Snowden or a Madoff? Kiddie porn and hurricanes? Who will trigger their warnings, lest they become upset? Will they tackle such challenges, or just protest them?
You may laugh. I’ve decided to cry.
This article originally appeared in Politico Magazine.