How Safe of a Space Should College Be?

We need to provide young adults with the skills to confront distressing ideas.

Posted Jun 05, 2019

The "snowflake generation," an epithet that was one of 2016's words of the year, is broadly defined as referring to today's young adults who are less emotionally resilient than they should be and more prone to taking personal offense at real and perceived slights, slings, and "disses." It's one of those designations that's synonymous with hypersensitivity: In a broad political sense, it's frequently used to describe liberals (see also "lily-livered"). 

Sometimes the complaints that emanate from snowflakes on campuses across the blue and red map of the country reminds me of a long-ago remark by Fran Leibowitz: "Your right to wear a mint green polyester leisure suit ends where it meets my eyes." It's particularly galling when voiced by privileged Ivy Leaguers, whose idea of "checking their privilege" is apologizing for the acts of their founders, whose achievements and endowment, when viewed in a contemporary context, are less notable than their ethical or moral failings.

College administrators and professors are struck by how vocal the parents of the snowflakes are in complaining that they are insensitive to the emotional needs of their students. Certainly, today's parents have been worrying about their kids' feelings since they were born: Data indicate that the emotional adjustment of emerging adults—their happiness—is more important to parents than anything else, including their academic and career success, and second only to their physical safety. No one would disagree that physical safety on campus—including protection from sexual assault and other predatory acts and violent crime—should be of paramount importance to college authorities.

But life doesn't come with trigger warnings and neither should college. Parents need to remember that academia is not a safe place to protect their students from ideas, values, and beliefs that differ from those they learned in the home, nor should it be.

College can't protect students from encountering people who may be biased, bigoted, intolerant, rude, and unfeeling, and especially not from words and images that activate unpleasant memories, feelings or trauma. Because no matter how hard we've tried to shield them from any or all of those unpleasant ideas, people and experiences, we need to stop trying and allow them to use or develop the skills to confront them.

College is about expanding their horizons, not limiting them. It's where, hopefully, they'll learn the difference between discrimination and dissent, preference and prejudice, and especially, being marginalized and feeling that way. Those are distinctions that can best and most openly be questioned, debated, expressed and experienced in a classroom, which is the safest space of all.