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National Columnists

McArdle: Sheltered students go to college, avoid education

If you’ve reached that crotchety age I’m at, you may be as mystified as I am by kids these days – especially by how they’re behaving on campus. I get the naive leftist politics and the wildly irresponsible partying; I even understand the drive toward hamfisted censorship of views they don’t like.

After all, I was at the University of Pennsylvania during the “spring from hell,” when copies of the campus newspaper were stolen to protest perceived bias against minorities. What I don’t understand is the tenor of the censorship. Today’s students don’t couch their demands in the language of morality, but in the jargon of safety. They don’t want you to stop teaching books on difficult themes because those books are wrong, but because they’re dangerous and should not be approached without warning.

They don’t want to silence speakers because their ideas are evil, but because they represent a danger to the university community. Are ideas dangerous? Certainly their effects can be. Ideas like “Asbestos makes good insulation” and “Bleed patients to balance the humors” racked up quite a number of fatalities. But, of course, the ideas themselves didn’t kill anyone; that was left to the people who put them into practice.

The new language of campus censorship cuts out the middleman and claims that merely hearing wrong, unpleasant or offensive ideas is so dangerous to the mental health of the listener that people need to be protected from the experience. During a time when people are supposed to be learning to face a hard world as adults, and going through the often uncomfortable process of building their intellectual foundations, they are demanding to be sheltered from anything that might challenge their beliefs or recall unpleasant facts to their mind.

And increasingly, colleges are accommodating them. The obvious objection to this is it is not possible to have a community of ideas in which no one is ever offended or upset. The less obvious, but more important, objection is raised by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in this month’s Atlantic: It’s bad for the students themselves. Students demanding that campus life be bowdlerized to preserve their peace of mind seem to believe the best way to deal with trauma is to avoid any mention of it. But Lukianoff and Haidt argue that this is exactly backward: chronic avoidance breeds terror. The climate on campus is a recipe for producing fearful adults who are going to have difficulty coping in an adult world.

Why is this happening now? How did colleges manage to guide generations of students through offense and outrage, only to founder at the dawn of the 21st century? Haidt and Lukianoff offer it’s because of the increasingly sheltered lives middle-class children live and expect colleges to sustain.

Under President Barack Obama, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has broadened the definition for what is offensive speech. Colleges tremble in fear of lawsuits or visits from regulators, and they send legions of administrators to head off any threat by appeasing angry students and making new rules. But Haidt and Lukianoff don’t mention the steady shift toward viewing college as a consumer experience, rather than an institution that is there to shape you toward its own ideal.

Cultural and economic shifts have pushed students toward behaving more like consumers in a straight commercial transaction, and less like people who were being inducted into a non-market institution. Mass education, and the rise of colleges as labor market gatekeepers, have transformed colleges from a place to be imbued with the intangible qualities of character and education that the elite wanted their children to have, and into a place where you go to buy a ticket to a good job. You see the results most visibly in the lazy rivers and rock-climbing walls and increasingly luxurious dorms colleges use to compete for students, but such a shift does not limit itself to extraneous amenities. Professors marvel at the way students now shamelessly demand to be given good grades, regardless of their work ethic, but that’s exactly what you would expect if students view themselves as consumers, and the product as a credential, rather than an education.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that students are demanding shelter from ideas they don’t like – or that universities have begun to acquiesce to these demands. But if it is not surprising, it is worrying. A university education is supposed to accomplish two things: expose you to a wide variety of ideas and help you navigate through them; and turn you into an adult, or someone who can cope with people and ideas you don’t like.

If the schools abdicate both functions, the only remaining function of an education is the credential. But how much will the credential be worth when the education behind it no longer prepares you for the real world?

• Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.

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