We hear a lot of stories about students these days. Complaints about a culture of protest and shelter. About students who demand safe spaces, who shy away from engaging anything difficult, who treat the academic space as a therapy session, and who reject the time-tested principle of free speech and the marketplace of ideas. Who just want to complain and don’t want to learn.
I think these stories are exceptionally silly for the most part, and I want to talk about why. It’s not that there is no truth in them. But the truth is often deeply distorted, to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable.
Now, I don’t pretend that my experience is universal, of course, but all I can say is this:
Over the past seven years, I have taught thousands of students, at a fairly liberal institution. And in all that time, I honestly cannot recall a single one who I would characterize as wanting to be ‘coddled,’ or who demanded the right to hide away from difficult or troubling material. What I have seen are many students who see the academic space as important for developing and growing, for coming to understand different ideas and different ways of life. And for becoming more comfortable in their own skins.
Often their idealism is unsophisticated at best or blunt at worst. They often latch onto simple explanations for complex problems, and gnash their teeth at the stupidity of others who fail to see things in such clear terms. They often exaggerate the effect of relatively small events, and dismiss too quickly those who might still be open to persuasion.
And, of course, I occasionally lament the naivete this exposes.
But then I remember myself at the same age. And I remember so many other generations that have gone through the same process. And in thinking of those things, I don’t simply chuckle and say to myself ‘well, they’ll grow out of it.’ Instead, I take heart that complacency is not so easily instilled. The world is made better by people who care, by people who don’t accept what is. By people who don’t yet know better.
There are many reasons to be dismayed about the current state of academia. But the fact that it’s filled with students who are constantly looking to change the terms of their education, who are asking more of those that teach them, who are taking advantage of this space and making it something that speaks to them…well, that’s pretty low on my list.
I’m much more concerned with those seeking to maintain all the unspoken elements of privilege that have corroded these spaces over the many centuries, who use tools of mockery to belittle those who see violence in the habits that sustain such privilege, and who dismiss out of hand the premise that anyone challenging the status quo could ever be right. Who assume that because something doesn’t bother them, it can’t possibly bother anyone else, either. Who see the educational experience they obtained as neutral and natural, and who therefore cannot even understand why that experience might not serve students who come to college via different routes, with different skin, different sexuality, different cultural backgrounds, different emotions, and different values.
There is a lot to complain about in contemporary academia. But if the primary focus of your complaints is the students, well…that says a lot more about you than it does about them.