The Serious Case of the Molly-Coddled Student

“If students graduate believing that they can learn nothing from people they dislike or from those with whom they disagree, we will have done them a great intellectual disservice.” The Atlantic, September 2015

We all grew up with the mantra, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. Despite the rhyme, it is becoming apparent that words can, in fact, hurt one particular group of people terribly. Words are powerful and often misused but even if they are used in a way that is deemed “offensive”, it does not mean that their user should be prevented from speaking in a public platform. To feel offended does not command the right to call-out the offender.

I am, of course, referring to the recent student-led protest against Germaine Greer, who has joined the, ever-growing, list of people who have been barred from speaking at a university event. A petition was created to bar Greer from speaking at the ‘Women and Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century’ lecture at Cardiff University because of her “transphobic” views. After arguing that trans-women could never be real women, it was deemed inappropriate for her to be present at the event because it would violate the “safe-space” policy of the university. In the end, Greer herself decided to for-go speaking at the event but, nevertheless, once again, the students have won the right to be molly-coddled.

The safe space phenomenon is another gift given to us from our American cousins, and it has swept through British campuses in recent years. As a former student who has witness exactly how the student body is thrown into complete turmoil by words, it is quite a spectacle to be in awe of.

Universities are places of learning where ideas are encouraged and tolerance is projected. A crucial part of learning is coming into contact with conflicting views and having vociferous arguments in the classroom and, perhaps, continuing them down the pub after a few beers. Students should be taught how to reason their way through arguments logically, and a part of that process is to look at both sides of the story, as it were, and weigh up all the evidence. How can we expect to progress as human if we do not confront arguments and ideas that conflict with our own? Debates, arguments, creative differences and radical ideas are what created the world we inhabit. If the safe-space, molly-coddled idea that is now the desire of some students actually becomes the norm, we risk coming to a stand-still.

A recent article in The Atlantic entitled ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ argues that the new trend of “vindictive protectiveness” on US college campuses has a negative impact on students, and results in the colleges not adequately equipping them to deal with the real grown-up world. It also highlights that vindictive protectiveness is, in fact, different to the political correctness movement of the 1980s/90s. Whereas the latter sought to challenge “hate speech” used towards marginalized groups in politics, economics, society and culture; the former is perpetuated to protect the emotional well-being of one group of people in one particular setting.

It is important that racial, LBGT+ and feminist discrimination is not promoted, but the problem with creating safe spaces and, basically, perpetuating an ideal of university campuses as places where students are safely cocooned in cotton-wool from reality, lies in the fact that it does not, and cannot, prepare them for adulthood in a world where safe spaces and “trigger-warnings”, another American phenomenon, simply do not exist. The world is, unfortunately, a horrible place where bad things happen, and whilst we can do our best to keep this to a minimum, safe-spaces and trigger-warnings are not the answer. Moreover, it is impossible that everyone will agree on everything and disagreements and dislikes are a natural part of the human psyche which should be embraced not discouraged.

Germaine Greer will, probably, not be the last person to be vilified for daring to speak out an opinion that jars with others’. But even in knowing that, we should not stand back and allow our universities to become airy-fairy learning centers. We need to protect those marginalized groups at our universities but not at the expense of producing lily-livered young adults.

The Atlantic – ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ article: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/

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