I distinctly remember walking into my professor’s office and gently shutting the door. I had some questions for my teacher about some things he had been saying, some other things that I had been reading, and why a lot of what I was learning from the classroom didn’t make sense to me. What the conversation was about I only vaguely recall. What’s still clear to me is the sense of intellectual exploration that I felt, as an older, wiser, and available man whom I admired talked me through the things that weighed on me in that season of life.
That office visit was several years ago. Many of those questions no longer trouble me. Some of the things I thought were so compelling to me at 20 are laughable now, and some things I thought ludicrous or unnecessary I have since built my life on. The professor probably knew it would turn out like that. He listened to me, yes. But he also spoke to me. I was a valuable student in his eyes, but I was not a fellow expert. He took my questions seriously but my answers less so. I know I’m better for it.
“The coddling of the American mind” has had its own news cycle for the past few weeks. Student protests at Yale, Missouri, Princeton, and elsewhere have occupied both headlines and presidents’ offices. Some of the student “uprisings” have published lists of “Demands,” promising continued disruptions if the demands are not immediately and unequivocally met.
Some of these demands are, undoubtedly, more reasonable than others. Some of what is going on the campuses of these schools is probably more grounded in reality and understandable frustrations than what some commentators have granted, as Ross Douthat has pointed out.
But as a whole, the hashtag activism and social media blitzkrieg that we’ve seen in the past three weeks seems to be predicated on a nonsensical and, in fact, dangerous idea: That college students should, at every meaningful turn, be taken quite seriously. Not only is this a misguided and irresponsible notion, it’s actually an acid to the intellectual lives of the very students that it purports to take so seriously.
For most American collegians, higher education begins somewhere between 17 and 20. Many students begin their college career closer to matriculation than to the legal drinking age (one of the more irrelevant laws on campus, I know). For most of America’s university students, college is more than an extension of their education or a prerequisite to their professional life: It is a causeway into independent adulthood.
The university years are not meant to be some sort of final, inarguable designator of maturity and insight. Actually, the opposite is true: The traditional university model is set up to offer its young students a rich field in which intellectual exploration and formation can flourish. Professors do not think of their job as being sparring partners for equally qualified, equally mature thinkers. Rather, professors relish the opportunity to mold intellects and affections, to train students to become the kind of learner and the kind of person that goes on to live a valuable life.
The phenomenon that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe in their definitive Atlantic piece is dangerous to many things, including free speech, college diversity, and academic freedom. But I would submit that it is most dangerous to the intellectual and spiritual formation of the students who are being coddled and satiated. By empowering 21 year olds to think of the university as a place where their felt needs should and will be treasured, parents and progressive academic administrators are communicating to these students that the most important aspects of their intellectual growth have happened already.
The incidents described in such detail by Haidt and Lukianoff depict a generation of Americans who arrive at American colleges already totally confirmed in the worldview they have developed as teens. Rather than being open to correction and vulnerable to the social risks that real diversity naturally brings, these students take what is surely a small amount of information–perhaps one emotive course on colonialism, or a powerful freshman gender studies seminar–and dictate the culture that must, per justice, emerge on campus. Not only does such a phenomenon cede the higher ground of education from the classroom to the ambient culture (including social media), it betrays the students it seeks to help by telling them a lie: That they have already discovered the real truth of their studies, and that their preexisting notions of justice and equality ought not, at this point, be challenged. What’s happening to the students is no longer education, but ordination.
Taking college students so seriously directly harms young adults in many ways, but two stand out. First, students who are coddled into thinking their intellectual formation is final and unquestionable are unlikely to see much value in studying the thinkers of the past. C.S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery,” and it is a threat that we see more and more in our culture. Fewer college students graduate with serious appreciation for the work of generations older than Marx. More and more young professionals are not conversant with a stunning percentage of Western literature, political science, and theology. The value of old books and old thinkers is that, when we take them seriously, they explode our suspicion that we are utterly unique in our beliefs, habits, vices, and virtues. When we’re “protected” from those whose beliefs we think we’ve progressed past, we attribute to ourselves a fraudulent intellectual novelty.
The second harmful effect of taking college students too seriously is that it communicates a false idea of what life is like. College students, because they are by nature immature and more emotive, believe that good intentions, humor, passion, and just a little bit of knowledge are what really matter in life. But this is only because the college campus is, like the high school locker room, a closed universe that doesn’t really reflect the necessary habits of mind and soul that make for success outside parental watchfulness. Habits like diligence can fall by the wayside with the allure of student loans and curved grade scales. Virtues like patience and self-control erode in the context of responsibility-free weekends. The point is that the world of college should not be confused for the world of adult life. When students are treated not like students but like fully formed philosophers and activists, this reality is missed.
Should you take college students seriously? Yes, you should. I’m glad my professor took my questions seriously. His patience and empathy helped me feel welcome, yes, but more than that, it helped me feel that this one particular season of intellectual uneasiness wasn’t permanent. Instead of telling me I should form a Facebook group or offering to include my thoughts in his next lecture, my professor responded to my searching with his own learning and experience. That’s what I treasured, and still treasure, about my college education, and I’m very thankful that I wasn’t taken so seriously that I missed it.