• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Be Not Afraid of College Students

And also, it's time to stop telling them to STFU.

April 4, 2016

There seems to be a growing public sentiment that we should be afraid of college students, that they may even be an actual threat to our democracy.

The most recent fear on college campuses seems to be how the current generation of students’ views “free speech.”

I understand experiencing fear and loathing when confronted with student attitudes. I was somewhere between worried and disturbed that, when offered a hypothetical where class would never meet and they would learn nothing, but they would receive an A, 80% of my students say they would take that deal. This finding suggests that learning appears to be an incidental part of their college educations. With those attitudes, how can they ever succeed?

What is wrong with them?

A recent Knight Foundation survey found that college students are actually strong believers in free speech. College students are virtually identical to other adults when it comes to supporting unpopular or disagreeable political speech, but at the same time, they are “comfortable” with restricting speech in order to create a “positive learning environment,” on campus.

They are most concerned about language that is “intentionally offensive to certain groups.”

If you are a free speech absolutist such as myself, this is where you start to get oogy about things as the slope appears before your eyes and you envision sliding down it, helpless in the face of PC-crazed college students.

The tensions are obvious. Emory is in the midst of a debate about “Trump 2016” chalkings on campus. These messages are both clearly protected political speech, but are also read – with some justification - as attempts to intimidate minority groups on campus. The words themselves can’t hurt anyone, but some members of the campus community believe they are representative of a broader culture that is hostile to their presence.

A popular remedy to these disputes seems to be to insist that the offended students simply STFU. They are accused of lacking “resilience,” in the face of challenge, an inability to handle the “real world,” which will deliver some harsh lessons believe you me. This is what all the coddling has gotten us.

As I see it, students protesting – even when I do not agree with the content of their protests – is actually an exercise in both resilience and agency, two of the most important skills we should be imparting via a college education.

These students are engaging with the real world, a world for example, that is hostile to gay and transgender people. They do not care for this world; it is an affront to their values, and so they protest. What is more real world than this?

I believe we also sometimes lose sight that our understanding of principles like freedom of speech are strengthened when put to the test. As these two Cal-Irvine professors discovered in teaching a course on the First Amendment, students having come of age in an era without these kinds of public disputes have left this generation unpracticed in thinking about civic values like freedom of speech, press, and assembly.

Rather than saying STFU, let’s educate by example.

Let’s also not think that “students” are some kind of monolith. Check out these Princeton students who see themselves allied with free speech rights. These are the kinds of arguments we should be having on college campuses. I am far more disturbed by students who unthinkingly accept the status quo – even a status quo I’m happy with – than those who think it’s worth questioning. This is how they will form a critical sensibility.

And most of all, I hope that we can also see students not as defective of character, but as products of the environment we’ve made for them. If we are displeased, perhaps we should look in the mirror.

If we wish for different outcomes, let’s change the environment.

Every time I read a complaint about the “everyone gets a trophy” generation, I can’t help but think, who were the people handing out those trophies?

What were they saying to children when they gave them trophies? What values were being handed down?

What if all those trophies are just a different version of STFU, as in, “Here’s a trophy, now STFU.”

Kids like trophies, so it worked for awhile, but now they are grown and want more meaningful things. That there is an undercurrent of hurt and betrayal to their complaints should not be surprising. We’ve been giving them trophies. They want something better.

My students who take the above hypothetical A without coming to class don’t actually hate learning. They simply don’t experience school as a place where learning matters. It is a place for credentialing and sorting, the place to get A’s, never mind how. Learning happens elsewhere. Why should they share my idea of college and education if they’ve never experienced it?

Students are also not lazy nor entitled. This generation of students sacrifices more in terms of dollars and outside hours worked than any previous generation. They will graduate with more debt into a marketplace that has fewer apparent opportunities. If they want to achieve the wealth that has come to Boomers (as a generation) primarily through the quirk of being born into an era of broad economic expansion, they will have to be entrepreneurs.

We have largely ruined the institutions – education, politics, the free press, the environment - we demand they respect. They know this has happened. Why should we expect them to STFU?

Perhaps students are making what some of us believe are impossible or unreasonable demands because for too long, the default mode of our institutional authority is to tell them to STFU, sometimes with a trophy, sometimes with silence.

I am tempted to tell another group, the one I belong to, to STFU, and do some listening, but that isn’t going to get us anywhere. Millennials are the largest generation ever. They’re going to be in charge sooner or later.

Given this fact, I think we can handle a little dialogue, a little pushback.

If we’re the grownups, we shouldn’t be afraid.


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