In the ongoing conversation about millennials, yet another controversy has sparked. This time it isn’t another trope about the young generation’s supposed lack of motivation or sense of entitlement. Instead, a recent blog post from a university president has everyone talking about their emotional sensitivity. While the incessant need to critique millennials is pretty played out by now, the fact that everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to the institutional leaders themselves are publicly decrying this problem makes it hard to ignore.
The latest headline is that Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Dr. Everett Piper thinks the students on his campus are a bunch of coddled babies. He didn’t use those exact words, but he did publish a pretty scathing blog post calling the students out for playing the “victim card” any time they get their feelings hurt, reminding them, “This is not a day care. It’s a university,” and going so far as to declare that “Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a ‘safe place.’”
I cringed a bit when I read that last line—that whole “not a safe place” bit. Yikes, right? I remember feeling pretty safe when I was in college, and in fourteen years when I send my son to college (God willing), I hope he feels pretty safe, too. It seemed like bad marketing to declare the institution to be unsafe.
There’s a big difference between the kind of safe that I’m talking about and the kind of safe that Dr. Piper is talking about, though. When I consider the degree to which I felt “safe” in college, I think of walking across campus without fear of attack. I think about the knowledge that my professors generally had my best interests in mind and that, for the most part, I was free to be my most authentic 19-year-old self without fear of persecution.
The kind of “safe” that Dr. Piper is referring to, the kind that he declares his university to be indifferent toward, has more to do with emotional comfort. He calls out a student who complained about feeling “victimized” by a university chapel sermon based on 1 Corinthians 13, the oft-quoted “Love is patient, love is kind . . .” text, a sermon that Dr. Piper is—not surprisingly—totally unapologetic about. When Dr. Piper declares that the university he oversees is not a “safe place,” he means that if a student’s feelings are sensitive, those feelings may not be safe there.
The distinction completely takes away the cringe factor for me. Because here’s the thing: The world is not a safe place. Especially for your feelings. The cold hard truth is that while the world is full of everyday heroes and moments of pure joy, it’s also full of assholes and drama. It’s full of people with opinions that are hurtful, backgrounds that are confusing, communications styles that are maddening, humor that is inappropriate, and style that is questionable. As the acclaimed writer and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner writes in his book Wishful Thinking, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.”
So, how do we tell the difference between colleges that disregard actual safety and those that disregard the safety of students’ feelings?
College campuses are certainly a place where real victimization takes place. The revelation of how common and how protected campus rape culture is, for example, reveals a near epidemic of victimization. Having a professor who teaches about upsetting topics (or quotes the Bible) without offering a preemptive “trigger warning” though? Are students truly victimized by occurrences like these, or are they perhaps having some of their first encounters with differences in opinion where there is no parental referee to declare a winner and issue a penalty? And to that extent, is it the parents rather than the students who are to blame?
Dr. Piper may be the first university official to speak so candidly and so strongly about the topic, but he’s certainly not alone in his perspective that American college students have gone soft. Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Bill Maher have all publicly declared that they will no longer do their stand-up comedy shows on college campuses due to the unforgiving climate of political correctness that’s become more and more common.
The Atlantic recently published an article coining the term “vindictive protectiveness,” referring to a movement that seeks to punish anyone who interferes with the goal of protecting students from psychological harm, even accidentally. The article asserts that vindictive protectiveness “prepares [students] poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety.”
A September 2015 article in Psychology Today corroborates the above assertion, citing, “There has been an increase in diagnosable mental health problems, but there has also been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life.” This decrease in resilience, the article notes, causes some professors to feel pressured to lower academic standards, lest their curriculum prove too challenging and cause a student to—gasp!—fail. For an institution concerned with keeping students’ feelings safe, failure is certainly an outcome to be avoided at all costs. But is that the point of an education? Universities shouldn’t shy away from hurting feelings. They should help students distinguish between what are real dangers and what are not.
Maybe it is bad marketing for a university president to so publicly give such little regard for the emotional homeostasis of his student body. Maybe, though, it’s a valuable step in the conversation about coming of age in America today, a process that requires dialogue and empathy. For students and parents who are actually paying attention, not simply to their knee-jerk emotional reactions but to what they hope the college experience will produce for a young person about to launch into adulthood, I think Dr. Piper’s perspective should be viewed as a representation of an institution’s desire to prepare students for life after college; for the world where “beautiful and terrible things happen.” A world where, hopefully, students are not afraid.
Photo Credit: Leo Hidalgo