It's Debt, Not Microagressions, That Has Many College Students Tied Up in Knots

This article is a preview of the Summer 2016 issue. Subscribe here.

Last September, The Atlantic published a disquieting cover story about the current generation of college students. According to the article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, young people raised by overindulgent parents increasingly come to colleges and universities demanding protection from ideas that might challenge them. Instead of learning to think critically, students police the air for “microaggressions”—offhand comments that may reinforce stereotypes—and insist that "trigger warnings" be placed on potentially disturbing texts, including classic works of literature such asThe Great Gatsby. Entitled, hypersensitive, quick to take offense: This is the new normal among undergraduates, the article warned, fostering a vindictive atmosphere of political correctness “in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

Last month, The New Yorker reinforced this impression in a deeply reported piece about undergraduate hypersensitivity at Oberlin. The article depicted the campus as a tense battleground where the free exchange of ideas had completely broken down and ultra-vigilant student activists bristled at everything from discomfiting books on the curriculum to disagreeable murals on the walls. “There’s this persistent, low-grade dehumanization from everyone,” said a student named Cyrus Eosphoros, who had called for trigger warnings on the play Antigone. Some even took issue with the school’s dining vendor, complaining that certain cafeteria dishes (substandard sushi, an inauthentic bánh mì sandwich) were culturally offensive.

It’s a disturbing portrait of a generation of students who seem increasingly disconnected from the real world. But does it describe most undergraduates? This past spring, I had a very different experience while serving as a visiting professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. I’d been hired to teach an undergraduate journalism seminar that focused on polarizing, divisive subjects: abortion, immigration, Islamophobia, the gun debate, campus rape. Issues likely to touch sensitive nerves, in other words, and to stir considerable discomfort among my students.

Several of the students in my class felt strongly about these issues. A few chose to write term papers that drew on personal experiences as well as on research and interviews they did. But no one in the class seemed uncomfortable talking about them. Nor did anyone object when I told them that, especially when reporting on issues close to their heart in which they had a personal stake, it was essential to talk to people whose opinions they did not share and to imagine things from multiple points of view, including views that disturbed or repelled them. None of the students called for “trigger warnings” to be placed on any of the books or articles on the course syllabus, despite the fact that several contained vivid descriptions of abuse and violence. When students aired criticisms of the readings in class discussions, the objections were about the quality of the work, not the offensiveness of the content.

In addition to teaching a seminar, I visited half a dozen classes in other departments (English, history, international relations) while at New Paltz. On these occasions, too, I did not come away with the impression that the students belonged to a generation that’s been coddled. If anything, the opposite was the case. The undergrads I met did not express a desire to be spared from exposure to disturbing literature. What they did express, over and over again, was a desire to be spared from the financial debt they were accumulating. After one class, I spoke with Martina Nadeau, a junior majoring in political science. Nadeau had transferred to SUNY New Paltz from American University because going there was too expensive. New Paltz, as a part of the state system, was a lot cheaper, but the cost of room, board, tuition and other fees still exceeded $20,000 annually. Two and a half years into her education, Nadeau, who grew up in a middle-class family in Long Island (her mother was a nurse, her father a retired carpenter), had $45,000 in unpaid loans. “I’m graduating early,” she said, explaining that she had decided to cram four years of coursework into three and a half. “And that’s why I’m graduating early. I literally can’t afford it.”

Nadeau was one of 15 students in a class I’d visited the previous day. When I asked how many of them would be graduating with debt, 13 of the students raised their hands. If few seemed concerned about “microaggressions,” it’s perhaps because they were too busy trying to keep up with their coursework while earning money in their limited spare time. The very real aggression they experienced was their financial bind.

Other faculty members at SUNY New Paltz told me that, on occasion, trigger warnings and microaggressions have entered classroom discourse. Yet for most students, the far more pressing preoccupation is paying the bills. A May 15 Pew survey found that 75 percent of Americans 18 years of age and older say college is too expensive for people to afford.

Nadeau worked up to 20 hours a week as a gallery assistant at a local museum to try to defray the costs. Several students I met at New Paltz were working two or three jobs. Nadeau had considered doing this, but she wanted to go to law school—where she knows she will accumulate even more debt—and had decided to enhance her resume by interning as a student judicial advocate, a position that was unpaid. When I asked her how she met all these responsibilities while finding time to sleep, she chuckled and told me that, often, she didn’t. The previous night, she’d been up till 5 a.m. It was her 29th all-nighter of the semester, she said.

Far from entitled, the students I met seemed overburdened and financially strapped, members of what Robert Kuttner has aptly termed “the shafted generation” in the pages of this magazine. It’s possible that their experiences and struggles aren’t representative, of course. But this possibility is rarely considered when it comes to students who attend the Ivy League universities and elite liberal arts colleges where the culture wars have grown especially heated of late. Last October, a lecturer sparked an outcry at Yale after writing an email that suggested students should be allowed to wear whatever Halloween costumes they wanted, even if this offended some people. (The firestorm prompted the faculty member to resign.) In December came the story about students at Oberlin protesting culturally insensitive cafeteria food. Both of these stories made national news, deepening the perception that nothing is too trivial to cause liberal college students to take offense nowadays. Even the dining hall fare must be politically correct! Lost in the commotion was the fact that only a small group of extremely privileged students attend institutions like Oberlin and Yale.

Aside from occasional grumbles that the food was expensive, I didn’t hear many students at SUNY New Paltz complain about the dining options on campus. What I did frequently overhear were complaints about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s so-called “rational tuition policy,” a plan unveiled in 2011 that called for regular tuition increases of $300 a year. The policy does not seem rational to many students, and for good reason: Since 2008, the year the Great Recession began to increase the strain on many middle-class families, the cost of a public four-year college in New York has risen by 25.8 percent, while state spending per student has declined by 7 percent. As bad as things are in New York, they’re worse for students attending public universities in other states. In Arizona, for example, tuition to attend a four-year state institution has increased by 83.6 percent since 2008, while spending per student has declined by 47 percent. In California, the cost has gone up 62.2 percent.

In March, a throng of New Paltz students walked out of their classes and marched across campus, carrying bullhorns and a banner that read: FREEZE TUITION.  Afterward, they flooded Cuomo’s office with phone calls. The protest kicked off “20 days of action,” a campaign launched by New York Students Rising, a statewide organization pushing to defend public education and to raise awareness of how difficult it is becoming for many students to access. Unlike the uproar about cafeteria food at Oberlin, none of this made national news.

Those who bemoan political correctness on college campuses often associate it with a reflexive form of identity politics that is notably blind to one form of privilege: class. But young people at less-rarified institutions seem acutely aware of inequality and class. Like many of the students I met at New Paltz, Martina Nadeau described herself as a feminist, and said she was paying close attention to the presidential campaign. She was undecided between supporting Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but is attracted to Sanders’s call to make all public colleges and universities tuition-free. On several occasions, I sampled opinion about the campaign in the classes I visited. The students overwhelmingly backed Sanders, irrespective of gender, and nearly always for the same reason Nadeau articulated.

On some campuses, there clearly is a heightened sensitivity to racism and sexism nowadays. At Princeton and Yale, students have pressed for the names of Woodrow Wilson, a blatant racist, and John C. Calhoun, an unrepentant slave-owner, to be removed from buildings. At other schools, this heightened sensitivity has focused on stranger targets. In April, a group of students at Brown protested a performance of Hindu chants by an alum, Carrie Grossman, because she is white. The protesters saw this as an act of cultural appropriation. It fell to Rajan Zed Kirtan, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, to tell Inside Higher Ed the “color of the person should not matter in devotional singing, and anybody should be able to pay respectful homage to Hindu deities.” In all likelihood, the episode will now find its way into articles lambasting the stifling mood of political correctness on campuses and, in this case, the criticism will be deserved. On some campuses, a dogmatic form of identity politics clearly has taken hold. But what’s too often missing from this picture is the very thing that opponents of political correctness so often decry: a sense of proportion and judgment, and an awareness that what transpires on the radical edges of elite universities is not always an accurate barometer of what’s happening in the wider world.

Even at places like Brown and Oberlin, there are plenty of less-privileged students struggling to make ends meet. Like their peers at state universities and community colleges, these students have genuine grievances that are grounded in reality and in the very real material burdens that so many young graduates will soon face.


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