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The Makers of the Snowflake Generation

If millennials are fragile, it’s because their teachers and institutions have made them that way for their own self-interest.

When our children were young and would fall, they would look at me to gauge my reaction. If I responded with, “Oh my goodness, are you ok?” they would inevitably start crying. If I told them to shake it off, they’d get up and go about their business. Kids are naturally resilient, but they can become thin-skinned and neurotic if constantly subjected to parental overreaction. A certain amount of benevolent neglect goes a long way. Being thick-skinned and tough-minded are valuable characteristics for children to develop as they learn to navigate this world.

This observation echoes one of the central claims of Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind, namely that when we tell students they are unsafe, they internalize the claim and come to believe that the world is a hazardous place where people are constantly out to get them. As a result, students become increasingly fragile and unable to deal with the friction and disappointment of social life. We would do well to remind them that a useful life is marked by struggle, hardship, failure, difficulty, and pain. We can try to insulate ourselves from all that, but we would become genuine good-for-nothings in the process.

Goethe noted that all regressive regimes become obsessed with subjectivity and elevate feeling over reason. The tyranny of feeling, sociologist Robert Nisbet argued, marked life in an iron age, the last stage of civilizational decline. He continued: “there are those who feel and feel that they feel; those who feel and feel not that they feel; those who feel not and feel not that they feel not; and saddest of all on the scene today, those who feel not and feel that they feel not.” We are to take feeling as both ineluctable and authoritative, just as we are to take “lived experience” as a special form of experience that justifies any interpretation of it. Referring to “lived experience,” like feeling, is not an invitation to conversation but a barrier to it.

Psychobabble and its laser-focus on feeling encourages egoism. And it’s the worst kind of egoism, because it stipulates that any insult the self experiences has to be recognized by everyone else as an insult. In the absence of any code of honor, insult becomes purely subjective. It is impermissible to suggest that someone is thin-skinned and needs to toughen up. Instead, we need to nod thoughtfully, purse our lips, furrow our brows, and be “empathetic,” which really means enmeshed in the other’s feelings. Heaven forfend we should say the obvious: the world is a tough and indifferent place where most people you run into won’t care about your feelings, they’ll only care whether you live up to your responsibilities. Minimally, we might try to see a middle ground between those two things. William James noted that philosophy needed both tough-minded and tender-minded thinkers, but we have become all tenderness and use very little of our minds.

Nisbet lamented his era of “self-spelunking, awareness-intoxication, and ego-diving.” Fate spared him our present moment. One expects teenagers to be all passion and no reason, and one expects them to be egocentric, but it’s the job of adults to break them of these habits. Instead, our schools—primary, secondary, and post-secondary—not only encourage this behavior, they denounce any resistance to it as a form of the bogeymen the students are told to fear. The people who run our institutions actively frame the student’s experience of the world with the intention of making them feel frightened, unsafe, and harmed. That frame is pathological, because it’s less concerned with the student’s well-being than confirming the ideological preferences of faculty and staff. More to the point, it’s an abuse of power.

Last fall, leaders at my college (and it could be virtually any place in the country), in preparation for the presidential election, decided we needed to create “election safe spaces.” Uncertain about the election’s outcome, the enablers anticipated that “students will need assistance” in “addressing their needs,” with the clear implication that these needs were limited to students whose candidate lost (assuming that candidate was a Democrat). The school also provided a website for “Election Incident Reports,” in case students encountered someone who voted Republican. Members of our community were admonished that the “stress” and “anxiety” associated with the election could best be dealt with by setting up faculty-supervised safe spaces replete with coloring books and snacks, and that black students could sign on to “buddy walks” with white students, who would accompany them across campus in case the holding of a democratic election made them feel “unsafe.”

This same college, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, decided not only to confess its institutional racism, but additionally felt the need to institute critical race theory as its institutional framework of analysis. A cynic might say that if racism were as rampant as suggested, a lot of people should have lost their jobs, particularly those running the departments and offices that were issuing confessions. There’s something especially peculiar about a department chair confessing that her department is racist and then expecting not to be held accountable. But no; instead, the school installed a whole new feeling-management apparatus, providing students with the psychic equivalents of blankies and teddy bears.

As it turned out, Biden won, and all the pre-election handwringing was for naught. Undaunted, noting students’ “deep hurts” in the wake of recent headlines about anti-Asian violence and the ongoing Derek Chauvin trial, administrators at Hope suggested that faculty’s primary task was to be “empathetic”—yet another noble concept unlikely to survive its promiscuous abuse. Operating on the assumption that students had already experienced “trauma” in their short lives, administrators admonished faculty not to retraumatize students by teaching ideas rather than feelings. The school further claimed that “Trauma-informed educational practice shares key principles to universal design learning theories.” I challenge anyone to make sense of that sentence.

As the end of the Chauvin trial drew near, so did the intense focus on students’ “lament, pain, and struggle.” The school needed to draw its attention and resources to lightening “the emotional load” on students, who were said to be “living in very challenging times.” Community members were expected to “allow space for the multitudes of ways of grieving and lamenting.” Note that no accommodation was made for those who would not be grieving and lamenting the results of a trial in which no one had a direct stake, for to demonstrate such repose would be morally objectionable and make one “complicit” in racism. Nor were we permitted to think that, under the rule of law, Chauvin might be determined not guilty—or that such a verdict could even be legitimate. Nor was it suggested that empathy might, in principle, be extended to Chauvin’s family. Absent in all these question-begging emails were references to learning, teaching subject matter, rational and open debate, the exploration of ideas, or the promotion of knowledge.

Once the Chauvin trial proved spent in ginning up outrage, emboldened by the tyranny of feeling, faculty and administrators found a convenient new target in our women’s softball team, who had the misfortune of celebrating Cinco de Mayo while wearing sombreros. A sober analysis would ask exactly where the wearing of sombreros (which the students purchased at a local store with the encouragement of its Mexican owners) falls on the scale of cultural insensitivity, with wearing blackface to a party at the impermissible end and eating tacos and drinking margaritas while white on the permissible end. But no such analysis was forthcoming; rather, the determination that wearing a sombrero is the equivalent of blackface rested on the authority of the feelings of one student who claimed, implausibly, that seeing white girls wear sombreros was “traumatizing.” The softball players might be forgiven for not realizing that the feelings of one person had unlimited power to slide the scale, or that such recalibration happens only after the crime has occurred.

Faculty and administrators immediately sprang into action—not by correcting the accuser, nor even by listening thoughtfully to both sides, but by conceding the legitimacy of the claim and going after the poor softball players. Faculty were encouraged to use class time to help students process their feelings, leading me to wonder which part of the cardiovascular system instructors in anatomy and physiology were to skip. The sacrifice of young women to the jealous god of anti-racism was accompanied, as one would expect, by sackcloth-and-ashes confessions of institutional racism with a promise to mend our ways. At no point did anyone publicly suggest that maybe we were overreacting a little, and our community norms of “belonging, understanding, and grace” ought to extend to white softball players as well. 

Little attention is paid to the ways in which faculty and staff prime students to have emotional responses to events that do not directly affect students or of which they have insufficient knowledge to make reasoned judgments. Feelings don’t deal well with complexity—that’s reason’s province. A world where only feelings matter is one requiring constant oversimplification. Many students would happily go about their business were it not for faculty and staff constantly telling them what they should be upset about. Most students would shrug their shoulders at the outcome of a presidential election had  faculty not begun class by literally crying over the results—that is, the faculty who could actually rally themselves to hold class. A lot of classes got canceled the day after the 2016 election. I can honestly say (and I teach political science) that I’ve never canceled class after any election, and I’ve never tipped my hand as to how I felt about the results. Why would I abuse my authority to privilege my feelings? The students have material to learn, and my job is to teach, not emote.

It is not in the interest of students to elevate feeling at all cost and to put into place obviously infantilizing practices and policies. Many students, if faculty and staff took the time to listen to them instead of telling them how they’re supposed to feel, think that most of these communications and institutionalized responses are insulting. Students recognize that the main impetus for the tyranny of feeling is not the well-being of the students but the professional, ideological, and institutional interests of faculty and apparatchiks in student life, who justify their existence and increase their power by exacerbating students’ grievances. A lot of students would rather focus on their education and career prospects, and they’d much rather faculty did the same for them. 

It’s morally disastrous to define deviancy down, and it’s educationally disastrous to define the strength of a community by its weakest members. Yet this is consistently what we do. We neither privilege the normal case nor uphold standards of excellence. Indeed, we are actively engaged in “redefining” excellence. We do not insist on strength of character or resilience in the face of adversity. Instead, we set our standards and policies to accommodate the intellectually weakest and most psychically fragile of our students, many of whom probably shouldn’t be in college to begin with.

Students take their cues from those in authority, those whom they look up to and trust. If we go about our business and do our jobs, the students will follow. But if we keep sending them messages that they ought to be upset and crying, we shouldn’t be surprised when they are upset and crying. We might even like these tears if they create an opportunity for us to demonstrate publicly our sensitivity and virtue. Matters are made worse when we exaggerate the nature of both the problem and the student’s reactions to it. Heterodox ideas don’t make people “unsafe.” Someone’s disagreement with a policy isn’t “harmful.” Normal, psychologically healthy people don’t get frightened when someone disagrees with them. The people in authority don’t really believe that, either. They use these words not because they accurately describe anything but because they are psychological weapons to silence their opponents. It’s cynical. 

Worst of all is the promiscuous use of the word “trauma.” Trauma is serious business. It’s the reaction people have when they have witnessed something truly horrific: war, a violent death, the unexpected loss of a loved one. Trauma will render them unable to function, at least temporarily, in daily life. The traumatized person will replay images in their minds that they can’t stop. Nothing will ever be the same for a traumatized person. Trauma is life-altering.

We need that word, and one way to devalue the meaning of any word is to overuse it or misuse it. A student who can’t function because a professor used a word that sounds too much like the N-word or had students read a book that has that word in it, or feels “unsafe” because the professor had the temerity to investigate a concept that the student, in all her wisdom and experience, decides is beyond the pale—this student is either performing, trying to get out of something, or in serious need of psychological help. Perhaps the best therapy is simply to shrug it off. They can survive a skinned knee.

Jeffrey Polet is a professor of political science at Hope College in Holland, MI.