Oblivious to Being Called ‘Snowflakes’

Britain’s conservative press uses American rhetoric -- “snowflakes” and “trigger warnings” -- to describe British academe. But students there don’t even know the terms.

February 2, 2018

If you read Britain’s right-wing press, you’d imagine that “snowflake” students talk of little other than “trigger warnings.”

But according to a new study, many undergraduates have not heard of either term.

Lydia Bleasdale and Sarah Humphreys, from the University of Leeds’ Leeds Institute for Teaching, interviewed 55 undergraduates as part of a project exploring students’ resilience and how it affects learning. A total of 185 students also completed a survey.

As part of the study, students were asked what they thought of the terms “snowflake generation” -- characterizing young adults who are allegedly quick to take offense and too emotionally vulnerable to cope with views that challenge their own -- and “trigger warnings,” statements that give students notice that teaching materials contain potentially distressing matter.

“Probably the most interesting thing was that so many of them hadn’t even heard of the phrase ‘snowflake generation’ and hadn’t heard of trigger warnings,” Bleasdale told Times Higher Education. “What they would typically say was that they were aware of or familiar with it but not necessarily in the educational context.”

When the terms were explained to them, students typically held “modest views of both phrases and their implications,” according to the report.

Humphreys explained that students talked about trigger warnings “in terms of preparing themselves rather than choosing not to engage with something.”

In particular, the report says, students were keen to point out that trigger warnings were necessary in certain subjects at university, such as biological sciences, law and medicine.

Moreover, students “displayed awareness” that the diverse university population meant that some might be more appreciative of trigger warnings than others, and that topics such as cancer, divorce or bereavement might be particularly difficult for some learners.

But others were less sympathetic, with one commenting that they were “in favor of freedom of speech and that people have to get outside of their bubbles and realize the world is harsh.”

When asked their opinion of the term “snowflake generation,” interviewees “were likely to say they could see some truth in it, but that it was an unfair, sweeping label for an eclectic group of people,” the report says.

Some respondents referenced aspects of modern life that they felt were more difficult for young people today, such as employment pressures, property prices and constant social media connectivity.

However, some interviewees were critical of their students’ union for banning certain things, with one commenting, “It’s the actions of … a few people that have managed to label a whole generation as snowflakes.”

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