AAC&U News, June/July 2017

Perspectives – Snowflakes, or Simply Students?

We’ve all heard it: Students are fragile snowflakes, melting from the heat of their first opposing viewpoint. Colleges and universities, once beacons of free speech, no longer try to educate these students—they coddle.

However, the authors of several recent articles argue that these “snowflakes” are not symptomatic of a failing education system. Instead, like all students, they simply need to learn.

In their article in Inside Higher Ed, “Not Coddling but Learning,” John C. Cavanaugh and Christine K. Cavanaugh say that this snowflake narrative is fueled by several “core assumptions” about higher education: students should “show more fortitude,” institutions don’t foster “open discussion and debate of issues and ideas,” higher education has an “everyone wins a trophy” philosophy, and society has failed to “eradicate bigotry of all sorts.”

Whether these assumptions are accurate or not, the authors “are concerned with the diagnosis that the fault, the reason ‘coddling’ is needed, is a character defect in students and, to a slightly lesser extent, in higher education institutions.”

Instead, they believe that many people make the faulty assumption that students, many of whom spent their entire lives around people who think exactly like themselves, should arrive on campuses prepared to listen and respond to opposing viewpoints.

“No one is born knowing how to deal with people and ideas that shake you to your core,” they write. “Everyone, irrespective of background or privilege, must learn how to do that.”

Even though many institutions are providing students with “on-demand tutoring, intrusive advising systems, high-impact teaching practices, [and] sophisticated data analytics that inform faculty members where students are having difficulty,” they must also reform their efforts to support and teach students how to “effectively [deal] with people, ideas, and behaviors that live way outside [their] comfort zones.”

To do this, institutions must complement the critical thinking and communication skill building that they already provide with “contemplative listening, a skill . . . both essential and overlooked as a prerequisite for the other two.”

And universities will need to expand their successful academic support structures to include methods of engaging with “all sorts of challenging and complex situations. In that approach, safe spaces,” which provide students support when confronting difficult situations, “are no more problematic—nor is the label any more pejorative—than math lab.”

Ashutosh Bhagwat and John Inazu, in their recent Inside Higher Ed article, “Searching for Safe Spaces,” also see the potential for learning in safe spaces and similar support structures. They argue that safe spaces can contribute to student learning by providing comfortable environments that are conducive to exploring new ideas and knowledge. “Regardless of its origins,” they say, “the notion of a safe space builds on the idea that people develop intellectually and relationally not only from exposure to conflicting ideas but also from the protection of intimate and private settings.”

In his New York Times article, “Advice for My Conservative Students,” Aaron Hanlon writes to conservative students (like he was as a college student) who may feel ideologically isolated by more liberal classmates and professors.

Rather than indulging in feelings of victimhood or lashing out at “snowflakes,” he urges students to “take responsibility for the parts of your education you control, and focus your energy on learning, writing, speaking, and debating.”

Learning to navigate these divisions by building communications skills will serve them well on campus and beyond graduation, Hanlon says: “Outside of college, most people don’t care about what you care about—not because you’re a conservative but because you’re a person in a diverse world, ideologically and otherwise. The better you are at convincing people to care about what you care about, the more politically effective you will be.”

Rather than engaging in the easy, publicized tropes of these debates—snowflakes, free speech, etc.—he asks students to “acknowledge arguments you disagree with on their own terms, and respond to their substance.”

Despite possible differences in ideology, he promises students that “your professors want you to learn the skills of written and oral argument” and the critical thinking and research skills necessary to back these arguments up. “My aspiration for all the students I teach who don’t agree with me is for them to become my most formidable interlocutors.”

In her recent statement on “Free Expression, Liberal Education, and Inclusive Excellence,” Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, wrote that this discussion and debate is the hallmark of liberal education, which “is designed to develop students’ capacities to think critically and to make themselves vulnerable to criticism by welcoming dissenting voices.”

At institutions hoping to instill these skills while navigating concerns about free speech and academic freedom, Pasquerella says that “a commitment to respect for others, free inquiry, and inclusivity must be paramount in maintaining an environment in which the free exchange of ideas can thrive.”

About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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