“Snowflakes,” Whitman, and why college isn’t a day care Posted on December 9th, 2015 by

The Atlantic

Dr. Everett Piper, President of the Christian university Oklahoma Wesleyan, made national headlines a few weeks ago when he vented frustration about a student complaint. In a blog posting entitled, “This is not a Day Care. It’s a University,” Piper described the incident:

This past week, I actually had a student come forward after a university chapel service and complain because he felt “victimized” by a sermon on the topic of 1 Corinthians 13. It appears this young scholar felt offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love. In his mind, the speaker was wrong for making him, and his peers, feel uncomfortable.

There are lots of extraordinary things about this: the highest administrator in a private, Christian, university, making such a critique of a current student, so publicly, is something I can honestly say I have never seen in my almost 20 years as a professor. What strikes me as the most extraordinary, however, is that this student’s complaint could not have been an isolated experience for Dr. Piper to vent in the way he did. In other words, for a public calling-out like this to occur, this must have been the proverbial straw breaking the back of many university faculty, staff and administrators who had had similar experiences with students like the one here, sharing their collective stories with President Piper. We’ve reached a milestone here folks.

There’s a word for students like this that was coined in the Generation Y literature: kids of that generation are like ‘snowflakes’ for two reasons:

  1. They each believe, and act like, they are completely unique and inimitable, deserving special attention for everything they do and for every circumstance, and,
  2. They melt at the slightest heat of criticism, unhappiness, or discomfort being applied to their life.

This is not a flattering metaphor, and both the Gen Y literature as well as research about higher education per se point to snowflake-like behavior being endemic in college. Students’ pushback when it comes to being made uncomfortable has become so widespread that some comparisons have been made to the 1980s and early 1990s “political correctness” movement. However, the September 2015 issue of the Atlantic included an article entitled, “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, where the authors argue this new required self-censorship has spawned something they call “vindictive protectiveness:”

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

If you google “snowflake student” you can read all kinds of examples of where folks have experienced what they consider to be the gross (and offensive) misuse of real protections needed by trauma survivors; trigger warnings, for one example, came out of the mental health field to help alert non-survivors to the needs of PTSD sufferers. That’s a real thing. Examples, though, of how trigger warnings are being used out there indicate something is amiss. Haidt shares one of those examples:

To prepare students for a class discussion on wisdom, I assigned a magazine article that described the dilemmas a physician faced as one of his patients was dying of cancer. A student complained (in the homework assignment) that I should have included a trigger warning, so that students who had lost a relative to cancer could steer clear of the article.

What President Piper and many, many other college and university staff are revolting against is students appropriating triggering or complaints of discomfort outside of the bounds of good mental healthcare because they don’t like feeling uncomfortable or being challenged in routine ways. That is to say—in the ways that college should, and must, make students uncomfortable or feel challenged. Even trigger warnings themselves are questioned as the best way to help victims manage trauma, as this well-referenced article notes. But I digress.

I worry about our students’ presumed and exhibited fragility. A lot. And many of my colleagues around the country do, too, because far fewer people are talking about what students are losing, and how walking on verbal eggshells cannot responsibly prepare students for a world where others will not be so careful, will not use trigger warnings, and will not care whether now-graduated students’ feelings are hurt. College HAS to make students uncomfortable. Sometimes unhappy. Sometimes deeply angry and frustrated. If college courses and experiences cannot help students develop their emotional and intellectual resilience and muscles, then the entire enterprise we call “higher education” is suspect.

Walt Whitman wrote a poem included in his Sands at Seventy collection, called “Stronger Lessons” that I think is perfect to describe the tension inherent in the teacher—student relationship and the choices we make as teachers:

Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you, and were

tender with you, and stood aside for you?

Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and

brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt,

or dispute the passage with you?

I want students to understand: we make you uncomfortable by design. We critique you because we care. We challenge you because it’s a tough world out there, and we want you to thrive. A hundred years ago, the great educator John Dewey said that the deepest learning is on the front edges of experience, where we couple the (sometimes uncomfortable and scary and upsetting) emotions of doing something new with insights we gain by reflecting on that experience. There is an exhilaration of accomplishment in the realization that you CAN overcome difficulty or discomfort. At no other time in your lives will you be in an environment dedicated to your own learning experimentation. Don’t waste it!


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