There has recently been a spate of essays investigating a striking tendency on campuses across the nation: many undergraduates are seeking more and more to avoid or pre-empt encounters with speech or images that they deem “triggering” or traumatizing. Instead of allowing these encounters to happen (as they would be forced to do in the world after college), they either try to form safe spaces in which they “burrow” as in a “cocoon” or they attempt to secure remedial action by school authorities after the fact.
I’m going to address one of these essays specifically here rather than the genre, Judith Shulevitz’s “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” from the New York Times. Shulevitz references a couple of other similar pieces should you care to catch up, but her piece covers most of the arguments I’ve heard regarding students’ “self-infantilization.” To cut to the chase, I think what she and others have described is neither a process of infantilization nor a process initiated by the students themselves, and her essay badly misdirects readers from the larger transformations in higher education that I believe are actually at issue here.
Let us begin with one of the subtexts of Shulevitz’s essay: that undergraduates today are less mentally strong and flexible than students of yore. Well, it’s not much of a subtext, in fact. She writes, “it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like.”
Hardier souls? Is this nostalgia for a tougher generation of students or nostalgia for an environment in which mental health issues were taboo for public discussion? I’m not convinced the latter represents toughness, and I am totally unconvinced that greater administrative responsiveness to students’ mental health is anything but overdue and necessary. Is it possible that, rather than today’s students suddenly becoming emotionally feeble, college administrations, parents, local and national media, and students themselves are more likely to acknowledge the severity and prevalence of depression and other mental health issues? Perhaps administrators and students are simply aware of a datum like this: “nearly 80% of those students who die by suicide never participate in counseling services.” Whom does it really help to encourage students to believe that they are less “hardy” if they find help in that “small army” of mental health professionals?
Well, it should be clear that doing so does not help college administrators. A line from a recent Gawker post, “Confessions of a Harvard Gatekeeper,” from an anonymous alumni volunteer admissions official, stuck out to me. “I will tell you that in this context [college admissions], measuring ‘academic excellence’ really boils down to two things: Will this applicant graduate on time and happy?” A remarkable sentence because it quietly lays bare the economic imperative behind admissions decisions: the potential admittee—at least among other considerations—must not be likely to waste one of the finite spots in an entering class by failing to graduate on time. Admitting a student who may have future mental or disciplinary issues that causes one of the spots in a class to go empty is wasting money for the school.
Which in fact leads to the second part of that sentence, the implication that one measure of “academic excellence” is the likelihood that the student will be happy at that school. And that consideration points beyond the opportunity cost of a given student holding down one of a finite number of spots in a class: it points to the importance of alumni relations and, specifically, alumni donations. Happy graduates are more likely to be better donors. Why admit students who will hate your school and will never donate to it as an alum?
Now, I admit fully that this is a cynical reading (although the Gawker piece certainly validates cynicism). In addition to these economic imperatives, I’m sure many administrators (and professors) are sincerely driven by compassion and concern in their attempts to improve the mental health of their students. But it is difficult to deny that economic reasoning comes into play here, and it is in how I think it comes into play that we get a very different story from the one that Shulevitz et al. tell.
One of the points that Shulevitz makes—that trigger warnings and other kinds of student protections do not exist in the real world, by which she means the world of employment—is absolutely correct. Trigger warnings and safe spaces make known that the student is in a wholly different world from that of employment. But is it students or administrations who have defined the category of “student” as antithetical to “employee?”
This contrasting of “student” and “employee” happens at many different levels in today’s university: right now, in the throes of March Madness, it is impossible to overlook the cunning way that the NCAA uses the special distinction of “student-athlete” to erase the value created by these athletes’ labor. (If you have not watched this John Oliver video on the NCAA, you should!) Graduate teachers are fighting in many universities (1, 2, 3) for the right to organize, a right denied them because, their universities maintain, they are only students. The logic of “student” as the other of “employee” is the logic of college administrations, not of college students.
But even here this logic does not only create this diametrical opposition; it also masks another. For what is back of this antithesis is the division of consumption and employment: students are increasingly defined as non-employees because they are increasingly defined as consumers. The voice that I hear in administrative acknowledgments of the validity of students’ demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces is not an echo of the Sixties but a variation on “the customer is always right.”
And is it, then, a surprise that those who are doing the most to press this small advantage are precisely those groups who, in US history, have most used consumer activism to press their civil rights and seek broader protections for themselves, namely, women and people of color? What if we were to re-name trigger warnings or safe spaces “boycotts?” Students—whether by intuition or by something more direct—understand that they are being treated as consumers; they are responding as consumer activists.
This consumer activism may, in some subtextual way, already be evident to the critics of safe spaces and trigger warnings, for what I think they are really objecting to is the fact that what is so clearly at the center of this form of activism is not education or knowledge but happiness. Shulevitz does not see this form of activism as student activism, which should center around knowledge, so she has to regard it as a reversion to childish demands for being made happy.
Of course, not all consumer activism is actually about securing happiness, but there are two considerations, intimated above, that to me confirm that safe spaces and trigger warnings actually are forms of consumer activism and not merely forms of entitled, petulant, or anti-intellectual behavior. The first is related to the actuality of the need for robust mental health services easily and shamelessly available to students. Students who are agitating for measures meant to protect their happiness are doing so around a real issue, not a specious one and not a minor one. Whether the measures they are asking for are reasonable is an important consideration, as is the effect of the measures on academic freedom, but to me there has been far too much airy dismissal of the basis of safe spaces in an actual and valid concern for students’ mental health. There is something real at the bottom of these students’ demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings and until that is recognized I cannot help but regard criticism of these things as a form of concern trolling.
That said, there is a dialectic at work here: although there is a real need for greater mental health support, students have also been forced onto this terrain rather than onto others because of the way administrations increasingly prioritize happiness as a metric for responding to students’ demands. Part of this prioritization is the absolute division instituted between the student and the employee, but the other—and, in “elite” colleges, the more salient—aspect of this emphasis on student happiness is the way that colleges increasingly define students as future alumni… and potential future donors. A priority must be placed on students’ happiness while they are students not because it has bearing on whether they will be well prepared to be employees but because it has bearing on whether they will be good—regular, generous, eager—donors. Even more than “the customer is always right,” “the donor is always right,” even when that donor is still in college. Happiness thus becomes—not by desire but by force of circumstance—the central bargaining chip for students.
There is certainly an important and urgent conversation to be had about academic freedom and whether that is being constrained by trigger warnings and the like, but the discourse of students’ self-infantilization misdirects us from the larger picture. That, I think, is definitely not a story of student-initiated “cocooning,” but rather the transformation of the category of “student” into “consumer” and “future donor.”
 Cited in David J. Drum, Chris Brownson, et al., “New Data on the Nature of Suicidal Crises in College Students: Shifting the Paradigm,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 40.3 (2009): 214.
 One consideration that comes from this excellent post which Ben Alpers pointed me to is this: the best way to find mentally resilient students is apparently to admit a lot of wealthy ones: the post cites a study which tells us that “About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.”