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Are Our Students Being Coddled?

August 2, 2019 Todd M. Smith-Bergollo Pace University - NYC

Are Our Students Being Coddled?

Over this past year I’ve found myself thinking a lot about our current students, how they’ve been parented, and how campus cultures have changed since I was a student. My thinking was sparked by reading The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Feeling I needed to discuss the ideas presented, I asked my staff to read the book and it was the focus of our winter retreat. We had a lively conversation, both about what we agreed with in the book and what challenged or triggered us. We shared with one another examples of times when we have seen students fall victim to the three Untruths that are presented in the book:

  • What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker
  • Always Trust Your Feelings
  • Life Is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People

We particularly reflected on the ideas presented by the third Untruth, brought to life in our community when the College Republicans were founded on campus this past year. As this recognized organization planned and advertised their events, we heard many students express feeling offended by the group’s presence on campus. These students were unwilling to recognize and respect that some of their peers may hold differing views than they, and they were quick to villainize these peers. My team’s conversation then focused on the phenomenon of safetyism and ways in which we have seen students express much broader concepts of safety and the state of feeling unsafe. We heard from some students that the mere presence of the College Republicans’ flyers on bulletin boards made them feel unsafe. One student even took it upon themselves to take down the flyers and write about their action with pride on social media. As a group of diverse professionals from different generations than most of our students, we all felt that these ideas were not prevalent when we were college students. While we may have not agreed with all of our peers while in college, it seemed there was a greater willingness to entertain different ideas and perspectives and recognize that good people may have different values and political leanings than ourselves. But as adults, have we lost that willingness, as well in today’s society?

I was motivated to talk with students more about this and found myself presented with such an opportunity. In January I was asked to give a presentation to a group of student leaders who serve as peer educators. I was familiar with this group and new that most, if not all of them, were socially progressive and outspoken. I showed them a video of Van Jones discussing the idea of safetyism on campus (find it here) hoping that we could discuss how, as peer educators, they could encourage their peers to step out of their comfort zones and learn from and about others. While that goal was not met, we did engage in a fascinating conversation. Many of the peer educators were quite offended by the words of Van Jones and were upset with me for showing the video and presumably agreeing with Van’s perspective. They were quick to discuss the emotional load of dealing with offensive talk and, I felt, they displayed an unwillingness to converse across difference in their daily lives. As our conversation continued a few individual students spoke out in agreement with some of Van’s ideas, but I believe they felt shunned by the group and the focus of the conversation did not take a turn. While I was happy to have had the conversation, I left wanting more and have continued to find opportunities to discuss these ideas with students in small groups and one-on-one conversations.

The book also discusses today’s parenting norms as well, including the idea of helicopter (or overprotective) parenting. This has caused me to reflect on my own parenting behaviors and also how we work with our students’ parents as they bring their children to our campuses. This prompted my team and I to think about our Family Orientation program and how we might adjust our content to discuss parenting today and the transition for parents as their children begin college. We hold several Orientations during the summer and we’ve created a new workshop for parents and family members during which we talk about helicopter parenting, its negative effects, and the concept of moving from caretaker to coach as your child embarks on their college career. The workshop includes a panel of staff and faculty who have had children in college. The panel shares their own experiences related to this parenting transition – some do’s and some don’ts – and the audience is able to ask them questions. The impact has been real – tears have been shed, fears have been calmed (and perhaps elevated), and many thanks have been expressed. I think many parents have appreciated our transparency and our efforts to challenge them.

While this post does not provide answers, I hope it has sparked some interest. I present The Coddling of the American Mind as a recommended reading for Student Affairs professionals and today’s parents. I challenge you to engage in conversations with your students about the 3 Untruths, safetyism and to engage with parents about how their parenting may need to shift now that their child is starting a new chapter. Many of us have witnessed these changes in our culture, we need to set an example and be part of the conversation as well!

Todd M. Smith-Bergollo

Assistant Dean for Students

Pace University - NYC


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