5 Reasons to Be Skeptical of “Campus Coddling” Scare Pieces

The “save us from the millennials!” scaremongering in the media continues with an Atlantic cover story which purports to show how trends like trigger warnings and drawing attention to racial and gender microaggressions in the academy are actually damaging students, coddling them and weakening their minds and ill preparing them for “real life.”

Below are some reasons to be skeptical of this and all past and future articles bemoaning the babying of the American student, particularly when they are long polemics by interested parties rather than reported pieces that try to actually discern what’s happening on campus.

1. Most of the examples to support these pieces are purely anecdotal:

In the case of the campus “sensitivity” trend piece, the same four or five incidents are getting brought up over and over again.  There’s the “Oberlin incident,” in which an Oberlin committee recommended some fairly stringent trigger warning guidelines —  guidelines that were then  rejected. The Columbia incident was  student letter to the editor about Ovid, which expressed the views of exactly two people: the people who wrote the letter. No policy was changed as a result. In almost none of these incidents has an administration or school actually cracked down on free expression — and almost universally, when there was some sort of unfair punishment, a general outcry ensued. These cherry-picked stories, upsetting as they are, do not constitute a crisis.

In fact, as I found when I interviewed several dozen faculty and students about the pedagogy of trigger warnings, you can find just as many if not more anecdotes of faculty choosing to thoughtfully include content warnings, faculty eschewing them while trying to be mindful of traumatized students, and generally, intellectual-minded people trying to work their way through these issues with respect and consideration in the classroom.

Interestingly enough, a takedown of the recent Tinder panic at the Science of Us makes a similar point:

“The plural of anecdote is not data.” This is a well-worn nerdism, but it reveals an important truth: When we consider our experiences and those of our friends and family, we’re only getting a tiny chunk of the full story of humanity…This is worth keeping in mind whenever a new moral panic is afoot.

What the media could really use is a broader survey of students, professors, and more to see if and how campus attitudes are actually changing. It would be nice if a national magazine used its resources to actually send a reporter to campuses rather than paying for screeds on the matter that are sure to circulate widely, but not to clarify the situation.

2. Conservatives are in fact more likely to be “sensitive” and “babyish” about content, yet all the alarm is about liberalism.

Perhaps the biggest national threat to academic freedom right now is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (currently a serious presidential candidate!) actively fighting his own university professors from the top down.  And he’s a legitimate contender! Why aren’t magazine cover stories up in arms about this, for instance?

In Wisconsin, legislators have just lowered the high bar for dismissing tenured faculty at the direct demand of Scott Walker and the state Republican regime. Shared governance, in which the Wisconsin university system once led the world, has been reduced to a mere advisory process. In practice, this means that decisions about academic programs – and the faculty who work on them – will be made by administrators who are either themselves political appointees or who serve at the leisure of these appointees.

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post also used facts and numbers to push back on the idea that “political correctness” was a left-wing phenomenon.  Citing a survey about censorship, Catherine Rampell noted that: “In almost every category, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to endorse book bans.” Why is no one calling these censorious types squeamish babies who demand to be coddled?

3. There may be real ways that millennials have a different cultural outlook, but no one is exploring the cause and effect of technology and culture on that outlook.

There are many valid ways to debate how growing up with the Internet and graduating into the Great Recession have affected the “millennial mindset” (to the extent that such a thing exists.).

It may be, for instance, that social media’s “with us or against us” style of arguing has bled over into classrooms. Perhaps the newfound ability to find a critical essay or negative review of any piece of work, no matter how canonical, with a simple click has reduced younger readers’ reverence for “great works” or even for their teachers.  It may be that young folks’ constant plugged-in state increases their exposure to terrifying news about police violence, the environment, rape culture, and the plunging economy — which has led to an increased sense of fear or desire for safety on campus.

In fact, none or all of these things may be true. Perhaps nothing has changed and this has always been the way on campus, but it’s merely getting attention now. I am currently reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and she describes a cringe-worthy story about her women’s studies professor being protested with a walk-out in the name of some egalitarian ideal, then re-invited as a “guest” to her students’ off-campus gathering, which the instructor found humiliating. Could it be that students, newly intoxicated with social justice ideas, have always gone overboard in ways like this? Could it be that that’s the kind of thing you get out of your system when you are studying?

There are many questions to ask with an earnest and genuine inquiry rather than a cry that the sky is falling.

4. There are crises in academia, but they are not solely curricular or student-caused.

The perilous state of adjunct professors, and all professors’ vulnerability to administrative interference, are major issues facing the academy. Furthermore, many of the teachers and professors I spoke to this spring said that the commodification and packaging of school is a culture shift that gets conflated with the “PC” issue.

These are problems that need real structural and financial solutions. Unfortunately, protecting faculty jobs might affect the bottom line of schools, so these issues get channeled away into yelling about kids’ oversensitivity.

5. PTSD is not a being a baby. 

Do some people misuse psychological terms? Sure. But to dismiss everyone with PTSD or categorize them as “babies” is counterproductive and hurtful. As one blogger at The Mary Sue wrote in response to the Atlantic cover story:

I like the idea of trigger warnings, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure they do much to protect people from panic attacks. Unfortunately, almost no articles that discuss trigger warnings seem particularly interested in centering the experiences of people with anxiety and PTSD…

I’ll close with a standard caveat: yes, progressive efforts to open up dialogue and be more inclusive can occasionally result in overcorrection in the direction of punitive and censorious actions, missing nuance, and being generally tiresome.

But for authority figures to cast all the blame on young people is no less tiresome, and given that the latest wave of panic is coming from the alleged adults in the room, far more disturbing.