Not Coddling but Learning

Why would we expect, ask John C. and Christine K. Cavanaugh, that students who have come of age surrounded by people who largely look and think as they do will be highly skilled at handling disagreeable situations?

May 11, 2017
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Boston students protest Trump's election.

Very few issues in higher education have captured the attention of commentators across the political spectrum over the past few years like the supposed “coddling” of college students. It’s rare that Ruth Marcus and Breitbart agree. But on the need to stop “coddling” students who seemingly cannot handle unexpected outcomes (e.g., the 2016 presidential election) or alternative viewpoints (e.g., pick your favorite “controversial” speaker), they made similar pleas. Calls for students to “grow up” -- or, as Republican Representative Bobby Kaufmann’s bill in the Iowa Legislature said, “Suck it up, buttercup” -- are widespread. From the left to the right, calls for college students to grow up are pointed, and getting louder and sharper.

Let’s be clear. Much of the commentary has been aimed at free speech issues -- many of which had roots in the 2016 presidential election -- and at microaggressions, trigger warnings and other aspects of language flowing from social structures and concerns that cause people pain. For our purposes here, the specific content or precipitating event is not the point. We are concerned with the diagnosis that the fault, the reason “coddling” is needed, is a character defect in students and, to a slightly lesser extent, in higher education institutions.

Considered together, the collected commentary framing the coddling issue appears grounded on a set of core assumptions: 1) that students simply need to show more fortitude, 2) that colleges are refusing to live up to their claim that they are the marketplaces for open discussion and debate of issues and ideas across the full spectrum of thought, 3) that we are reaping the fruits of the “everyone wins a trophy” philosophy, and 4) that we are experiencing the result of a failure to eradicate bigotry of all sorts from society.

Perhaps those assumptions are correct.

We argue they are not.

We propose that, when looked at from a different perspective, students’ behavior becomes more easily understood and, essentially, expected. A bit of history will set the stage.

A Matter of Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

There was a time not long ago when a common experience on a campus was the statement “Look to your right. Look to your left. Two of you won’t be here at graduation.” At the time, those and similar statements and actions -- faculty members never providing lecture notes to students who missed class, math classes having grade distributions of majority D’s and F’s, students being told that if they needed additional tutoring they did not belong there -- reflected a certain understanding of rigor and were touted with pride.

No more. We have come to understand that the students who used to be among the two not there at graduation didn’t discontinue because they didn’t belong there. We figured out that the problem had to do with knowledge, learning, skills, experiences and support. Institutions responded to that discovery by creating and providing a wide array of supports: on-demand tutoring, intrusive advising systems, high-impact teaching practices, sophisticated data analytics that inform faculty members where students are having difficulty. The result? More students learning more and achieving credentials at a higher rate. By most people’s estimation, we are more successful now, with many more students, that we ever were with a misguided understanding of rigor. Institutions no longer assume that students come fully prepared.

We argue that the lessons learned through this change in attitude and understanding regarding academic success would greatly benefit us in rethinking the coddling accusation. Consider this: just as students come to college with the knowledge, skills and abilities they have honed in and outside class in their educational experiences up to that point, along with the social skills learned along the way, so too do they come with the ability to handle disagreeable situations and ideas different from their own. Simply put, we do not expect students to show up at college possessing all the requisite skills to be successful in life; otherwise, we would have no expected learning outcomes and college would be unnecessary. On the contrary, we expect that students will grow in knowledge, skills and abilities across the arc of their college experience, exiting with demonstrably higher competence levels than those they possessed upon arrival. That is true for not only academic skills but also for handling disagreeable and challenging situations.

The trouble is, that’s not the way most people see it. Why? Why don’t we view the issues swirling around the coddling debate as a matter of knowledge, skills and abilities? Why do so many commentators insist that it’s a character defect in students, or yet another example of liberal institutions run amok, overly concerned with fragile egos?

It troubles us that such observers also fail to see the inherent contradictions in their own arguments. Consider: Why are we more understanding that a veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder might occasionally need a “safe place” than we are that a person who has survived a serious physical assault might need one? For that matter, why do people of every background create “strategic retreats,” closed off-the-record briefings, secret societies, clubs with exclusionary and/or affinity-based membership rules, and so on if not to provide a “safe space” to go and share mutually supportive thoughts and feelings? Why are they taken for granted as acceptable and expected while safe spaces for LGBT students are somehow coddling?

Similarly, why would we expect students who have come of age in neighborhoods and schools surrounded by people who largely look and think as they do to be highly skilled at handling personal insults hurled by those with different, yet similarly narrowly shaped, experiences and beliefs? Why should we expect that people who have experienced different outcomes of a society still struggling with racial and class issues will magically know how to get along? Why would we expect students to arrive a college skilled at civil discourse when their only understanding of political debate consists of well-compensated people on opposing sides shouting to drown one another out?

Viewed through such contexts, coddling is not the issue. Rather, the issue becomes how we can best provide the experiences that result in the acquisition of the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to handle challenging and complex situations effectively. It becomes recognizing that the outcomes on which we stake our institutional reputations, especially critical thinking and communication skills, must also include effectively dealing with people, ideas and behaviors that live way outside our comfort zones. It becomes understanding that no one is born knowing how to deal with people and ideas that shake you to your core. Everyone, irrespective of background or privilege, must learn how to do that.

To the core outcomes of critical thinking and communication, we would add contemplative listening, a skill we have argued elsewhere is both essential and overlooked as a prerequisite for the other two. For example, although it can be claimed that the pundits are adept at critical thinking, and are expert at communication, they lack contemplative listening while they are on the air. In previous papers, we presented a case for adding contemplative listening to the list of core outcomes in general education, grounding that discussion in theories of adult cognitive and personal development.

The listening-thinking-communicating triad forms an essential foundation for helping students develop the skills necessary for success in a society based on free and open debate. Bloom’s taxonomy could be a good initial framework. And just as we provide wraparound support structures for writing, math and so forth, we will need to ensure that similar supports are in place regarding all sorts of challenging and complex situations. In that approach, safe spaces, for instance, are no more problematic -- nor is the label any more pejorative -- than math lab.

From this perspective, colleges do not coddle anyone. Whether they provide sufficient opportunities and support for learning and practicing the requisite skills to handle intellectual and emotional challenges may be a very different matter. Only when we adopt a mode of creating supported learning opportunities, through scaffolding, a technique used to gradually move a learner progressively and incrementally from one level of understanding to another by providing temporary support, or other approach, will we adopt the more appropriate stance that handling challenging and complex situations is something we learn how to do. Robert George and Cornel West adopted this perspective in their well-known course on how to listen to contrary points of view. Our main point is this: telling students to “grow up” is no more helpful than telling them that if math is hard for you, you simply don’t belong.

Perhaps if we all were better at listening, we’d know this from our students already. Perhaps if we started demonstrating more effective ways of handling challenging and complex situations, we would have more opportunities for people to imitate more effective behaviors. Perhaps if we just understood that bursting our own bubbles is difficult and often traumatic, we would be better positioned to guide our students through the same process. Perhaps then we would move on, more productively and effectively, to confront the underlying issues that drive the content of the debates.


John C. Cavanaugh is president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. Christine K. Cavanaugh is president of Pathseekers II Inc.

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