Unless students are suffering from a severe mental illness, the type of pathology that would likely keep them from being able to attend and succeed in college to begin with, they should be perfectly capable of remaining psychologically healthy in the face of offensive Halloween costumes, distasteful jokes or comments, and sensitive course material.
People are generally quite psychologically resilient. After all, as far as we know, we are the only species aware of our mortality, and that death can come at any time for reasons we often cannot predict or control. And yet, most of us are not paralyzed by anxiety about our inevitable demise. We are able to get out of bed each morning and be productive citizens. As part of a research project, my colleagues and I collected autobiographical narratives from older British adults who were children during World War II and had very detailed memories of being separated from family, having to take shelter underground during German bombing raids, and facing a considerable amount of personal upheaval and loss.
Those experiences did not mentally break these individuals. In fact, they became sources of meaning and triumph, life events that helped define character and generate gratitude.
My grandmother once told me she was thankful for the hunger and poverty she experienced during the Great Depression because it helped her grow into an empathetic adult and inspired her to always help those in need.
Ironically, the victim protection campaigns many colleges are engaged in not only underestimate human resilience, they may actually cause the problems they are designed to solve because they suggest to students who wouldn’t otherwise feel like victims that they are, in fact, victims.
For instance, feminist professors are encouraging college women to feel fragile and vulnerable, and teaching them that they are not in charge of their own destiny but instead are victims of the patriarchy. I recently interviewed Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on feminism. When describing modern academic feminism, she said “I call it fainting–couch feminism, a la the delicate Victorian ladies who retreated to an elegant chaise when overcome with emotion. As an equality feminist from the 1970s, I am dismayed by this new craze. Women are not children. We are not fragile little birds who can’t cope with jokes, works of art, or controversial speakers.” (The full interview can be read here.)
I am especially concerned about the push to segregate students. Research in social psychology has long shown that segregating people into different groups does not improve relations between groups. It actually causes greater tension, hostility, and conflict.
By nature, people show favoritism toward those they perceive as part of their own tribe, so the key to positive relations between people from different groups is to bring them together under a unified group identity, to foster a sense of common humanity. As Leigh Ann Walls, an army veteran, recently told me, “there was so much diversity in the army, and it worked because we weren’t paying attention to it. We focused outwards, not inwards.”
In most real-world contexts, fragility signals weakness and dependence. But in the victimhood culture promoted on many college campuses, because fragility is celebrated, it signals high status. This creates an arms race in which different groups try to one up each other on which is the most threatened and vulnerable. As Hoff Sommers puts it, on many college campuses victimhood status “confers authority and prestige.”
This really has been going on in some form or fashion for a very long time. I think in modern days it has become a little more over the top, with attempts to silence anyone who doesn’t go along with the herd, and of course the segregation of the campuses, which people should be outraged over, but are instead cheering on.
And I hear people say all the time that these are adults and they aren’t learning it in school. Like hell.
I graduated college in 2003. While I was attending, we had a demonstration. As a journalism student and a member of the college media as both a newspaper reporter and the host of a political talk show on the school radio station, I participated, with one of my two radio co-hosts at my side (I have no clue where the third one was, but this was his kind of deal; we were the libertarian, the conservative, and the liberal, with myself as the libertarian. The liberal was the one who didn’t attend with us, which was odd). The demonstration was over the raising of tuition, and it was a large hike in price. This was a small university that I can guarantee 99% of you have never heard of. It was also the only demonstration I remember taking place during my time there.
Anyway, the demonstration was a walk out and a rally in the main area of campus, an open spot in the center of our very small campus, with the speakers on the library steps.
I am mentioning this for a good reason. The time that this was to take place – when everyone would walk out of class and go out to the rally – was during one of my classes that I had to take but wasn’t really necessary for life (you know, those ridiculous classes you have to take but really hate having to pay for the credit hours for because they will contribute nothing to your education or career). The instructor gave everyone who walked out a pass for missing the class, and we were told this the day before. In order to walk out to the rally, we’d miss the entire class. It wouldn’t be deducted. Those who decided to go to class didn’t get a comp day that they could miss later. So right there, you were rewarded for taking part in the rally. She couldn’t prove we actually went to the rally, mind you. But if you didn’t show up for class, it was just assumed and you were good to go.
Students lined up to speak on the library steps, and as each student finished… they looked over to the teacher standing on the side for approval. I kid you not! Each and every one of them looked over at this guy, who would nod in approval or look away from you if he didn’t approve. And he was one of those guys with long hair and a cap, a sweater that was colored so you couldn’t tell if it was dirty or was supposed to look that way and it was at least five sizes too big, too large subdued plaid pants, and loafers. And the rimmed glasses that just made that look away so much more obvious. I watched students stammer and completely change what they said, just to be rewarded with this man’s nod.
Tell me these students didn’t learn what to think that day, instead of how to think.