The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Yale professor: My students aren’t snowflakes, and they don’t melt

A bulletin board on the Yale University campus days after the Nov. 8 presidential election. (Nick Anderson/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump’s victory in Tuesday’s presidential election provoked intense reactions on many college campuses. Students who supported Democrat Hillary Clinton were stunned, while those who backed the Republican were elated. Some media reports suggested that liberal faculty on left-leaning campuses were coddling grief-stricken students who had voted for Clinton, by scrapping exams and other required assignments in the days after the election. Here, a Yale University economics professor rebuts that notion. — Nick Anderson

At deep-blue Yale University, students shocked to be facing Trump presidency

By Steven Berry

Countless media reports claim that university students are so devastated by the election results that they have stopped functioning. Professors are said to have obliged their “special snowflakes” by canceling class requirements and exams. “Chaos on Campus,” read one headline. Another was illustrated with a photo of a screaming toddler.

The stories feed a long-running media narrative that students, particularly at elite universities, are intellectually brittle and unable to cope with opposing points of view. Even President Obama has warned against any move to so-called “safe spaces” that are supposedly free from opposing points of view. That is, surely, not the nature of the university’s academic enterprise.

Let me tell you about my students. This term, I am teaching Introductory Microeconomics to a large lecture hall of Yale undergraduates. It is a tough course. We teach the freshmen from a textbook pitched to advanced majors and MBAs. All students, including liberals, learn exacting mathematical arguments in favor of markets, demonstrating the social costs of taxation and the inefficiency of bad regulation. All the students, including conservatives (and yes, they are here in good numbers), learn a rigorous treatment of inequality, market failures and optimal regulation. By the time we reach the difficult three-hour comprehensive final exam, all have to confront and be tested on arguments that challenge their worldviews. At the end, we give real grades on a strict curve, making it impossible for “everyone to do well.”

Let me note that my students are not atypical. In fact, a majority of Yale students take the course.

So, how do my supposed snowflakes do when confronted with hard work, disappointing grades, and arguments that confront their ideological pieties at every turn? They do the work, they learn the material, and they are unfailingly polite. I have the best job ever.

It was a surprising turn, then, when some media outlets decided that my students were, in fact, the very most special snowflakes. Late on election night, a large number of students emailed me. They were unexpectedly riveted and drained by the ongoing national election drama. Our second midterm exam was scheduled for the next day. Neither Clinton nor Trump supporters were likely to find much time for sleep and they had all studied much less than they expected. Could we please postpone the exam? As a teacher of economic policy, I was pleased that my students were properly transfixed by historic events. Perhaps it was, after all, a bad idea to schedule the exam for the day after the election, but the exam could not be postponed.

A smaller number of student emails were darker, focused on intensely personal consequences. A few students from immigrant families were suddenly terrified (rightly or wrongly) that family members would soon be deported. These students were not afraid of ideas.

Economists like clever solutions, and I thought I had one. Every time I teach the class, I offer students in some personal difficulty the following “standard offer.” If they are unable to take the second midterm for personal reasons, I will transfer the weight of that exam entirely onto the upcoming final exam, which also covers the material on the midterm. In light of historic events and the poor timing of the exam, I made a quick decision to make a version of my standard offer to everyone, Trump’s late-night celebrants included. As it turns out, Harvard Professor Greg Mankiw, Republican economist and former adviser to President George W. Bush, made a similar offer to his introductory economics students.

The next morning, the sun rose as usual and I sent the students an email, reminding them that the great majority of them would actually be better off taking the exam. That afternoon, I sat in an empty exam room, waiting for the students’ arrival. My smartphone buzzed. Apparently, a Yale economics professor’s special snowflakes were so upset by the thought of President Donald Trump that they couldn’t function and so their idiot professor had made an exam “optional.”

Look, it’s fine to make fun of me. But my students aren’t snowflakes, they don’t melt at the mere thought of opposing ideas, do they? I looked out at the near-empty classroom. Shouldn’t the students be arriving by now?

The doors burst open and students who had been studying notes in the hallway outside flowed into the room. Almost all the students were there. Their heads bent over the exam, all math and graphs, with little jokes and tricks embedded in the questions. It was hard and most students took the full 75 minutes. No crying, no whining, no excuses. As the students flowed out, a few paused to talk. “Your offer meant so much to me,” one said.

We old folks have plenty to answer for. The next generation is going to have to be tough. Luckily, I was right: my students don’t melt.

Steven Berry is a Yale University economics professor.