Monday, March 23, 2015

College As Kindergarten

In College, Hiding From Scary Ideas:

KATHERINE BYRON, a senior at Brown University and a member of its Sexual Assault Task Force, considers it her duty to make Brown a safe place for rape victims, free from anything that might prompt memories of trauma.

So when she heard last fall that a student group had organized a debate about campus sexual assault between Jessica Valenti, the founder of, and Wendy McElroy, a libertarian, and that Ms. McElroy was likely to criticize the term “rape culture,” Ms. Byron was alarmed. “Bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences,” she told me. It could be “damaging.”

Ms. Byron and some fellow task force members secured a meeting with administrators. Not long after, Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, announced that the university would hold a simultaneous, competing talk to provide “research and facts” about “the role of culture in sexual assault.” Meanwhile, student volunteers put up posters advertising that a “safe space” would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting.

The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.
I'm a bit lost in the premise or set up here. If the debate wasn't assigned by a professor to attend, and attendance was simply voluntary, why would one put themselves in the situation of being "bombarded by viewpoints" you don't agree with, and thus in need of said safe space?
Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material.

But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.

This logic clearly informed a campaign undertaken this fall by a Columbia University student group called Everyone Allied Against Homophobia that consisted of slipping a flier under the door of every dorm room on campus. The headline of the flier stated, “I want this space to be a safer space.” The text below instructed students to tape the fliers to their windows. The group’s vice president then had the flier published in the Columbia Daily Spectator, the student newspaper, along with an editorial asserting that “making spaces safer is about learning how to be kind to each other.”

A junior named Adam Shapiro decided he didn’t want his room to be a safer space. He printed up his own flier calling it a dangerous space and had that, too, published in the Columbia Daily Spectator. “Kindness alone won’t allow us to gain more insight into truth,” he wrote. In an interview, Mr. Shapiro said, “If the point of a safe space is therapy for people who feel victimized by traumatization, that sounds like a great mission.” But a safe-space mentality has begun infiltrating classrooms, he said, making both professors and students loath to say anything that might hurt someone’s feelings. “I don’t see how you can have a therapeutic space that’s also an intellectual space,” he said.
Presenting material in a sensitive way is certainly a requirement for any good professor, but the notion that certain topics are verboten simply because they might "offend" someone is the very antithesis of higher education. 
It’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like. This new bureaucracy may be exacerbating students’ “self-infantilization,” as Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, suggested in an essay for Inside Higher Ed.

But why are students so eager to self-infantilize? Their parents should probably share the blame. Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote on Slate last month that although universities cosset students more than they used to, that’s what they have to do, because today’s undergraduates are more puerile than their predecessors. “Perhaps overprogrammed children engineered to the specifications of college admissions offices no longer experience the risks and challenges that breed maturity,” he wrote. But “if college students are children, then they should be protected like children.”
The Posner article is one of the dumber things I've ever read...a call to arms for the prolonging of adolescence into your college years and beyond. I can remember, as an undergraduate back in the 80's, the last thing I would have ever wanted someone to call me was a "child"  at college.

But it does fit with the self-infantilization mindset of helicopter parents today. I'm not sure it's the students who want to live in a cocoon as much as it is their over-protective, entitled parents who won't let their kids fail, be exposed to anything challenging, and who give them trophies for every single thing they've ever done in their lives (win or lose).

The article does have problems. The author selectively presents examples of p.c. run amok and then over-generalizes to ALL college campuses today. I've seen things here and there where I work, but I've never seen anything resembling the over-the-top incidents she cites.

Nonetheless, her overarching point stands: higher ed is not doing this generation of students any favors whatsoever by catering to them with a service-sector mentality where "the customer is always right," and their hands have to be held through every life-event (or class). Part of it is their parents (who, because they're paying exorbitant tuition in some cases, think their kids are owed something), but part of it is the public education system they've come out of which emphasizes only rote memorization and standardized tests, and critical thinking skills are undeveloped if not non-existent.

I'm definitely guilty of perpetuating it myself. I produced a syllabus this semester that is nine pages long for an upper division class, half of it walking the students through precisely what is required of them to write papers. I can hear my professors from the 80's laughing their heads off now. The longest syllabus I ever received was probably two pages; we were given assignments and then had to figure out how to write the papers on our own. "Free-range" education indeed.

Now the students expect boilerplate directions, the professors give them, then spend copious amounts of time wringing their their hands, wondering why students don't know how to write (or think) anymore.

Let me reiterate: colleges should be a safe place to come and live, study, work hard and excel. It is the only time in your life you basically get a pass to sit around and think big thoughts in ways you'll never have a chance to do again, and this is only possible if basic needs are being met (including safety).

But turning universities into kindergarten-like spaces isn't going to keep the big, bad world out there from rearing its ugly head. Sadly, not everyone is going to agree with your "dearly held beliefs" and people are going to get in your grill and challenge you outside the ivory towers. The idea that we should ban speakers, topics and view points from the classroom or campus because they challenge popular beliefs is the kind of authoritarian/fascist thinking higher ed is designed to tear down.

If that's the road we're going down, we may as well close up shop and go home.

UPDATE: You think I'm kidding about self-infantilization? Check this out: Adult Pre-K!
Whimsy is having a moment. In New York, men with full beards ride skateboards to work. Thirty-somethings join kickball leagues. Folks wait hours in line for novelty baked goods. But a preschool for adults?
Michelle Joni Lapidos, who launched what may be the world’s first pre-K for the over-21 set, arrived for our interview sporting a tiger-print coat, cherry-red hair and two sequins twinkling on her temple. Her feet were shod with shiny platform tennis shoes or, as she calls them, “Silver super skipping sneakers.”
Preschool Mastermind, which runs Tuesday nights in her Park Slope duplex, is doing well, she says. Her six students are enjoying activities such as snack time, nap time and show-and-tell. They are channeling their inner super heroes. Last week, they had a slumber party.
“It’s for adults seeking play and adventure and excitement in their life and community,” says Ms. Lapidos.
::crickets chirping::

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