Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Are universities pampering their students?

Judith Shulevitz's article on seemingly overindulgent university administration's concerned about the feelings of sexual assault victims, In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas New York Times 03/21/2015, has received quite a bit of attention. Shulevitz more-or-less mocks the efforts of universities to create "safe spaces" for students.

Daniel W. Drezner in Why free speech on campus is not as simple as everyone thinks Washington Post offers a nuanced view expressing justifiable skepticism about Shulevitz' perspective.

Stories about the supposed softhearted prissiness and impractical other-worldly softheadedness of college perfessers and administrators always have a certain audience.

Andy Seal also offers broader perspective on the very real-world problems with which colleges and universities have to reckon in Hardy Boys and Girls: On Undergraduates and Self-Infantilization U.S. Intellectual History Blog 03/23/2015.

Seal is also critical of Shulevitz' limited perspective:

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?

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