College students need educators, not babysitters

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Last year, four female students at Columbia University protested the teaching of classical mythology in the classroom, and insisted that the school implement a trigger warning for Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” – one of the most notable works in Western culture – because a class was instructed to “read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault.”

Columbia is no outlier.

All across America, (a, perhaps, vocal minority of) female students complain of the rampant sexism and misogyny on campus. And they fret that they will suffer emotional harm if exposed to great works of literature, such as “Things Fall Apart” or “The Great Gatsby,” with old-fashioned or sexist themes.

Increasingly, our colleges and universities are buckling to feminist demands and treating students as if they are children too young to handle adult topics. There has been no dearth of stories about this university or that creating new speech codes, trigger warnings, and “safe spaces” – all in a misguided attempt to protect students – particularly young women – from ideas that might be upsetting.

At Oberlin College and Georgetown University, feminists provided trigger warnings and a “safe space” to shield female students from the views of lecturer Christina Hoff Sommers — an American Enterprise Institute scholar who regularly speaks in support of  “equity feminism,” the idea that men and women are equal under the law. Apparently, the mere idea of equality is “harmful” for some young women these days.

At Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, administrators now prohibit students from “treating someone negatively” based on “social or political affiliation,” preventing students from engaging in open social and political discussions. Likewise, the University of California-Santa Barbara now requires trigger warnings on every syllabus for works that students could find discomforting, and students have the option to skip a trigger class or assignment without any penalty to their grade.

It is important to note that many of these directives in academia have stemmed from the students themselves. A survey conducted by McLaughlin & Associates on behalf of The William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale found that the majority of students now favor speech codes and trigger warnings. This is more pronounced for college-aged women, with 60 percent in support of speech codes, compared to just 51 percent for men. When asked about the trigger warnings, the margin narrows, with 64 percent of women in favor, slightly more than the 62 percent of their male counterparts. Shockingly, 95 percent of students say that free speech is important to them, but apparently are unaware that these speech codes are anathema to the very fundamental concept of free speech.

Part of the problem may be that our education system has failed students: 33 percent of students surveyed were unfamiliar with the First Amendment, suggesting an alarming lack of understanding of how these civil liberties are guaranteed by the Constitution and fundamental to America’s system of government.

Adults need to take note of these troubling trends and recognize that we do college students no favors by sheltering them from controversial rhetoric and the viewpoints that they will inevitably encounter in the world outside of college. Rather than coddling college students as if they were vulnerable 8-year-olds, educators must expose them to robust debates and help teach them how to cope with difficult and potentially upsetting subject matters. If we don’t, students will be worse off.

Students aren’t just missing out on learning opportunities; colleges are facilitating thought patterns that leave them more vulnerable to emotional problems. That’s the conclusion of Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership, and Greg Lukianoff, President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) — a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and advance civil liberties on America’s college campuses.

In their recent article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” they explain that speech codes encourage emotional reasoning over rational and critical thinking. Instead of considering the facts of a situation, students are invited to accept the authority of their emotions, which, unfortunately, can lead to counterproductive and irrational thought patterns in a manner similar to those associated with depression and anxiety. In fact, the data suggests that our instinct to protect young women from words may actually exacerbate the problem. Female students are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than their male counterparts. It seems that encouraging students to let their anxieties dominate them, rather than teaching them how to overcome them, is particularly harmful to young women.

Is this really what we want young women to come away with from their college experiences? Do we really want to abandon political and intellectual diversity, long-esteemed characteristics which make our nation so remarkable, just so our college-age young adults can avoid leaving their mental comfort zone? “Safe spaces,” speech codes, and trigger warnings teach students that there is no merit in learning more about an opposing point of view. Instead, young women need to be properly challenged and educated so they can succeed as citizens and leaders after college.

As a recent college graduate who grew up in a small town, exposure to diverse ideas and competing arguments in the college classroom helped me to formulate my own opinions and transition to the real world outside of college. Taking away that opportunity to learn and grapple with complex matters would have left me far less prepared for the real, adult world.

College students aren’t children; they are young adults and should be treated accordingly. They don’t need babysitters; they need educators.

Heather Madden is the Advocacy Projects Manager at the Independent Women’s Voice.