Universities have a new welcome-back message for undergraduates returning amid the pandemic: Act your age.
The irony is rich. The institutions calling on students to “be adults” have progressively been treating them as anything but.
Several schools have now opened their doors to arriving students, albeit with stringent safety protocols about gathering. By last Thursday, North Carolina State University announced it would move all classes online after witnessing off-campus behavior the school described as “inconsistent with our community standards.” That is to say, a bunch of underclassmen were partying.
East Carolina University has also moved to online-only classes after two weeks of instruction resulted in increases of COVID-19 cases. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shut down its in-person operations. Vanderbilt and Syracuse reprimanded students intent on having a good ol’ time.
“We write this not to scare you but to be perfectly plain,” Vanderbilt’s chancellor and provost wrote in a letter to students. “The situation happening at other universities can be avoided at Vanderbilt, but only if you anchor down, step up and do your part.”
Syracuse added this imperative: “The world is watching, and they expect you to fail. Prove them wrong. Be better. Be adults.”
In essence, the message is, “We know this is uncomfortable and tries your assumptions, but we expect you to meet the challenge.”
Well. It’s been some time since universities have tried to get that message across.
In their landmark argument, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt lay bare the mental effects of treating young adults as if they were an endangered species. The notion of microaggressions, stifled speech (nearly three-quarters of Yale students say the school is an “unwelcome environment for conservative opinions”) and the embrace of emotions as a marker of truth make for a distressing campus environment.
Once a bastion of free-thinking researchers committed to their odyssey of verity, academia has constructed for itself a bubble so thin that any sharp object approaching must be eliminated. Thus, professors censure professors, administrations squeeze out contrarian voices and courses deemed culturally inappropriate get the axe.
And this helps 18-year-olds navigate life?
Concerned about rising levels of mental health ailments among emerging adults, colleges have sought to dampen subjects, ideas and words that may trigger unwanted emotions. But it’s that dampening process, say Lukianoff and Haidt, that can actually lead to the anxiety and depression schools hope to quell.
They go on: “If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons … then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond.”
Beyond building emotional fortitude, adults should be accountable for their actions, yet somehow universities accept that nearly 55% of students ages 18-22 report drinking alcohol in the past month.
Psychology says the human brain isn’t fully developed until age 25, so maybe it’s reasonable to create space for youths as they transition to life on their own. That’s the role of a university, some would argue — a place where the blossoming adult can shed adolescence while landing on a pillow when failure strikes.
To be sure, higher education remains one of the best methods of preparing citizens to engage in societal and political processes, and economic data continue to uphold the value of a college degree.
But a growing list of absurdities — from the liberal professor whose own liberal students “terrify” him, to the Yale lecturer who resigned amid protests over her email suggesting Halloween costumes shouldn’t be regulated by the university — call into question higher education’s aptitude for helping young people cut their teeth in preparation for post-dorm life.
One student who berated the Yale lecturer’s husband implored, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here!”
If college is a home, then administrators are the parents. And any parent knows you can’t say “stop” after years of saying “go for it.” If higher education expects its pupils to be adults, it needs to look in the mirror.