By Michael Roth
Are you sick of reading about pampered college students and their safe spaces, trigger warnings, and coddled minds? I know I am. Generations of parents and grandparents have long loved to shake their heads at the apparent absurdities of the young. It’s practically an American tradition: our founding fathers shook their heads about dueling and drinking on campus. When I was a college student, oldsters questioned my generation’s patriotism and work ethic. Now my graying generation (with plenty of coloring) questions whether the young people of today have grown too sensitive, and, of course, whether they are ready to take on the world of work that we have prepared for them.
What do pundits mean when they say that students have grown too sensitive? They usually refer to some isolated incident when students become enraged by what seems a minor provocation, like an e-mail from a university administrator about Halloween or about fitting in. But why not turn the question back on the carping columnists? Given the grave issues facing the world, why are pundits so focused on the micro issue of protests on college campuses?
Conservative columnists are aghast that students from groups long discriminated against aren’t just grateful to their institutions for allowing them on campus. Defenders of the land of opportunity don’t mention that those institutions have long practiced affirmative action for the over-tutored but often still dim offspring of wealthy donors. And liberal columnists, for their part, can’t understand why the particular struggles of their heroic youth aren’t simply taken up by their militant descendants. Ought these writers really be shocked when their own hierarchy of values based in secularism and fair procedures (values I share) aren’t simply embraced by students from groups who have seen how “fair procedures” can obscure discrimination, intimidation and worse?
I have been teaching college students for over 30 years, and now I am president of Wesleyan University. When I look around my campus and visit others, I don’t find pampered students with coddled minds. I find math majors in the gym every day preparing for a soccer match or a swim meet. I find writers pulling all-nighters to finish a project working side by side with computer science students developing new software. There are more double majors than ever, and on every campus I visit there are impressive percentages of students doing volunteer work or creating organizations that will have a positive impact locally, even globally – be it making their campuses more sustainable or improving the education of girls in Africa.
These hard-working, dedicated students fill the ranks of those now protesting for more equitable and inclusive educational institutions. Admittedly, there are plenty of times when I disagree with student activists at Wesleyan, and they are often angry when I don’t see things their way. I have rejected boycotting Israeli scholars and I have my doubts about some of the latest consultant-driven training to make everyone more aware of their unwitting participation in systematic oppression – and we have vigorous discussions to bring our disagreements out into the open.
And “student activists” don’t all see things the same way. In this respect they are not unlike older alumni who may like some of my policies, say fiscal sustainability, and not others, say co-educating residential fraternities. Like student activists, alumni make their views known, often with dramatic gestures. We are an educational institution: It is a good thing when we can articulate why and how we disagree.
The image of students concerned only with the micro frustrations of everyday life as opposed to “real” issues bears no relation to the real students I encounter at colleges and universities. These students are well aware, for example, that climate change may significantly alter their lives, and that it will surely disrupt the lives of people around the world. They are learning about this accelerating catastrophe in STEM classes and political science seminars, and they are striving to find ways of mitigating its effects through sophisticated science and through policy analysis.
Our students are also well aware that they will graduate into an economy and society with greater inequalities and less social mobility than in any time since early industrialization. American college students recognize that powerful forces are dynamically increasing the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few. They are studying how one can create robust economic growth without just reinforcing this inequitable trend, while grappling with a political arena ever more responsive to money.
On many campuses, students from different social classes live in close proximity with one another. Given the tendencies toward economic segregation in this country, they may not have had this experience before, and may not have it again. So many of the tensions on campus stem from the close up recognition – intellectual and visceral – of unequal economic opportunity and its intersection with traditional forms of discrimination and prejudice.
Yes, our colleges and universities have become more inclusive and less discriminatory over the last 40 years. When I was a student, many male professors thought sleeping with students they were grading was just a job perk; racist and homophobic speech and actions were routine. This has changed, and people with various political views can agree that this is real progress. Today, campuses are more diverse because some Americans fought for educational opportunities to be more equitably distributed. Thanks to their achievements, todays students have higher awareness and higher expectations, so we can expect continued tensions on our campuses. Racism and inequality are still powerful beyond the borders of the university, and campuses themselves are not immune.
These are not “minor” or “micro” issues, and our students know it. They are faced with a world beyond the university that is threatened ecologically, economically and culturally, and they are doing their best to prepare themselves for these challenges. They are studying physics and religion, design and economics, and sometimes they stand up and make themselves heard. Sometimes they are filled with rage, sometimes with fear. They will make mistakes, but they don’t need columnists to tell them that the main problem isn’t Halloween. If only it were.