Magazine article The American Prospect

Meanwhile, Back on Most Campuses: The Focus on Extreme Political Correctness at Oberlin and Other Elite Colleges Risks Obscuring What Less Privileged Undergraduates Are Dealing With

Magazine article The American Prospect

Meanwhile, Back on Most Campuses: The Focus on Extreme Political Correctness at Oberlin and Other Elite Colleges Risks Obscuring What Less Privileged Undergraduates Are Dealing With

Article excerpt

Last September, The Atlantic published a disquieting cover story about the current generation of college students. According to the article, "The Coddling of the American Mind," by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, young people raised by overindulgent parents increasingly come to colleges and universities demanding protection from ideas that might challenge them. Instead of learning to think critically, students police the air for "microaggressions"--offhand comments that may reinforce stereotypes--and insist that "trigger warnings" be placed on potentially disturbing texts, including classic works of literature such as The Great Gatsby. Entitled, hypersensitive, quick to take offense: This is the new normal among undergraduates, the article warned, fostering a vindictive atmosphere of political correctness "in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse."

Last month, The New Yorker reinforced this impression in a deeply reported piece about undergraduate hypersensitivity at Oberlin. The article depicted the campus as a tense battleground where the free exchange of ideas had completely broken down and ultra-vigilant student activists bristled at everything from discomfiting books on the curriculum to disagreeable murals on the walls. "There's this persistent, low-grade dehumanization from everyone," said a student named Cyrus Eosphoros, who had called for trigger warnings on the play Antigone. Some even took issue with the school's dining vendor, complaining that certain cafeteria dishes (substandard sushi, an inauthentic banh mi sandwich) were culturally offensive.

It's a disturbing portrait of a generation of students who seem increasingly disconnected from the real world. But does it describe most undergraduates? This past spring, I had a very different experience while serving as a visiting professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. I'd been hired to teach an undergraduate journalism seminar that focused on polarizing, divisive subjects: abortion, immigration, Islamophobia, the gun debate, campus rape. Issues likely to touch sensitive nerves, in other words, and to stir considerable discomfort among my students.

Several of the students in my class felt strongly about these issues. A few chose to write term papers that drew on personal experiences as well as on research and interviews they did. But no one in the class seemed uncomfortable talking about them. Nor did anyone object when I told them that, especially when reporting on issues close to their heart in which they had a personal stake, it was essential to talk to people whose opinions they did not share and to imagine things from multiple points of view, including views that disturbed or repelled them. None of the students called for trigger warnings to be placed on any of the books or articles on the course syllabus, despite the fact that several contained vivid descriptions of abuse and violence. When students aired criticisms of the readings in class discussions, the objections were about the quality of the work, not the offensiveness of the content.

In addition to teaching a seminar, I visited half a dozen classes in other departments (English, history, international relations) while at New Paltz. On these occasions, too, I did not come away with the impression that the students belonged to a generation that's been coddled. If anything, the opposite was the case. The undergrads I met did not express a desire to be spared from exposure to disturbing literature. What they did express, over and over again, was a desire to be spared from the financial debt they were accumulating. After one class, I spoke with Martina Nadeau, a junior majoring in political science. Nadeau had transferred to SUNY New Paltz from American University because going there was too expensive. New Paltz, as a part of the state system, was a lot cheaper, but the cost of room, board, tuition, and other fees still exceeded $20,000 annually. …

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