Stop Coddling My College Students!

It seems like every time I get online I see posts about college students advocating for the restriction of free speech on college campuses. From “safe spaces” to Emory students calling to evaluate teachers on their use of “microaggressions,” sometimes I feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone. It certainly wasn’t that long ago since I was in college. My college was a place for people to explore new ideas, encounter people from a variety of backgrounds and, believe it or not, get acquainted with ideas that may make many people uncomfortable.

I’ve seen many people question these “social trends” in higher education. In particular, they’ve delved into how these movements threaten the very ideals of American society, namely, freedom of speech.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I am an ardent defender of liberty. You will find no one more dedicated to the preservation of individual freedom than myself. However, there is another problem with these trends I’d like to discuss. That is, what are the implications for this generation of college students? To answer this, I think we need to go to the genesis of the problem—parents.

On the first day of class I give my students their syllabus. I tell them several things. One thing I tell them is, “I’m not talking to your mom.” In fact, under federal law, I’m not allowed to do so unless a student waives his or her right to privacy. Even if they do, I can speak to a parent, but I don’t have to. I tell them that, as adults, if they have an issue with the class, that’s something for the two of us to discuss. If a parent has a problem with his child’s performance, that’s something he needs to discuss with his child.

A friend of mine (a college professor at another institution) told me that a parent emailed to request a meeting over the past summer—several weeks before the semester even started. I’ve heard stories about parents calling to complain about grades, assignments, professors not offering extra credit opportunities for students, and for being “unfair” in their grading practices.

Given this, it doesn’t really seem odd that many of today’s college students cower in fear at all things that run counter to their beliefs. Students have been put in an intellectual bubble. Anything outside their comfort zone is scary, threatening, and must be destroyed. They haven’t ever been asked to think in an alternative way. Things that offend them are immediately referred to mom and dad, who instead of teaching their children how to interact with contrary opinions, swoop in to save them.

Ultimately, parents do their children a grave disservice by constantly coming in to save them. They don’t learn how to work with diverse groups of people, are uncomfortable when authority, or anyone for that matter, presents them with something they don’t like. In school, the consequences of such actions seem minimal. As young children, the proverbial “helicopter parent” engenders eye rolls and glasses of wine after school (at least among my friends in elementary education). By the time they get to me, however, it’s a positive detriment.

But that’s not even the worst part. What happens when the “safe space generation” heads into the work force? Will the parent who asked to meet with my friend before the semester began want to go with their child to his first job interview? Will the parent call their child’s boss when work isn’t going so well? If they don’t, what have they taught their child about coping with adversity? They’ve taught them to complain until their demands are met. I’d hate to break it to many parents, but you’re setting your children up for a lifetime of hardship.

While it seems college students today might be in trouble, I’m actually optimistic. Underneath the layers of “safe space,” there’s the same contrarian, rebellious college students we’ve always known. It’s just going to take some time to bring them back.

I also tell my students from the outset of our class that, if we really want to discuss economics, we have to discuss policy. Policy is always going to have conflicting points of view. To engage in the class effectively, students have to discuss these policies. They have to think about them–from a variety of points of view.

In my principles courses (populated largely be freshman and sophomores), we discuss things like minimum wage, rent controls, price gouging, drug prohibition, human organ sales, taxation, and environmental conservation. I can tell that some students get uncomfortable when discussing these topics as our economic analysis sometimes tells us that the policies we often see the most may not only be ineffective, but counterproductive. On exams, in class, and in other assignments, I require students to evaluate policies using the economic way of thinking. That is, arguments surrounding their personal beliefs aren’t valid. It’s not a matter of “ought” or “should be,” but a discussion of “what is.” You can hold an opinion, but you have to have to be able to back it up!

While I know this makes some students uneasy, I don’t leave them out to dry. I try to offer them the tools to think about these issues, to analyze them, and make their opinions their own—regardless of whether or not they agree with their parents, their peers, or anyone else. I tell them that economics, offers us a value free way to discuss many issues. That is, given the particular goals we (a government, society, etc.) hope to achieve, how well does a particular policy achieve these goals? We don’t have to say that a particular policy is “good” or “bad,” but instead evaluate it on how well it achieves the desired goals.

While this method of analysis is foreign to many students, I’ve found them to be receptive. After a few times of using the “I feel” argument and getting docked points, they learn to argue with facts and theory. Asking “what might be the consequences of this policy?” a few brave souls will attempt to answer. That spawns other people to jump into the conversation. By the end of the semester we’ve made serious headway in learning how to argue and how to analyze arguments we may have previously found “offensive.” By the end of the semester, it’s amazing how much discussion I can get from questions, and how many students come in with current events that relate to course material.

A few semesters ago I had a student come into my office. “Professor,” the student said, “This class is giving me an existential crisis! It’s like, everything I thought I knew is getting turned upside down.” I told the student I was sorry for the frustration, but glad that the material was getting them thinking.

It was then the student said, “Oh no! I’m glad. I’ve never thought about things this way before. It’s different, but really cool. I’m having a lot of debates with people and learning a lot.”


Abigail R. Hall Blanco is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Associate Professor of Economics at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.
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