In a new article, Slate’s Rebecca Schuman laments the phenomenon of colleges and universities becoming toned-down, less playful, even boring. Schuman argues that this is in part due to parents over-planning their kids’ lives, leaving them incapable of finding creative ways to have fun when they’re older and on their own:
A recent trip back to my beloved alma mater, Vassar—combined with my interactions with students where I teach and some disappointing sleuthing—has made it apparent that much of the unstructured free play at college seems to have disappeared in favor of pre-professional anxiety, coupled with the nihilistic, homogeneous partying that exists as its natural counterbalance. The helicopter generation has gone to college, and the results might be tragic for us all.
Helicopter parents may have an effect on the ability of young adults to fend for themselves, but I’d argue that colleges and universities themselves deserve some blame. In FIRE’s experience, they’re doing an impressive job shutting down the creative impulses of even the most free-spirited students.
Schuman writes that while visiting Vassar, she missed “the smaller moments of irreverence that contributed to [her] formation in surprisingly large ways: the cheeky ‘VASSar’ shirts; the satirical back-page calendar in the school paper, the Miscellany News.”
Why might students be reluctant to continue such traditions? Perhaps because joking T-shirts and satirical articles can land them in serious trouble on today’s campuses, where risk management is king and freedom from discomfort is paramount.
For example, in 2012, several members of Tufts University’s rowing team were suspended from the team and forced to write apology letters after wearing T-shirts that said “check out our cox” (referring, in a play on words, to a boat’s coxswain). One administrator attempted to justify this punishment by arguing that the shirts promoted rape. And when University of Alaska Fairbanks student newspaper The Sun Star published its April Fool’s Day issue last year, an article joking about a vagina-shaped building resulted in the newspaper being subjected to a sexual harassment investigation that lasted the better part of a year. FIRE has seen satirical articles in student press targeted for censorship and sanction many times before, and it is no wonder that students at many colleges and universities are decreasingly engaging in this increasingly risky venture.
Institutions of higher education are stifling other outlets for creativity, too. Back in 2012, the University of Central Florida punished a student for inventing a better way to search for available classes, and earlier this year Yale University blocked a popular course evaluation site developed by two undergraduate brothers. And universities have a knack for shutting down even harmless, cool, and impressive projects, like one University of California, Berkeley student’s fully automated dorm room.
Speech codes and other school rules that stifle free thought and innovation are now the rule on too many campuses nationwide. Perhaps this is because some students come to college expecting to be comfortable all the time, free from offense or the discomfort of being confronted with ideas with which one disagrees; perhaps this is because colleges themselves are instilling this unfortunate expectation in their students upon arrival. Of course, freedom from offense is a practical impossibility in an environment where people are—and should be—experimenting with new ideas, but institutions of higher education nevertheless yield to many of the demands for administrators to pick up where parents left off, “protecting” adult students from that which might make them uncomfortable. FIRE’s archives are replete with cases of even public universities, which are bound by the First Amendment, sanctioning constitutionally protected speech in the name of keeping complaining students comfortable.
Reversing this trend will take work from parents, administrators, faculty, and students alike. But the beauty of the university is that if administrators are forced to uphold free speech principles, students can inspire each other to break out of their boring, helicopter-parents-induced shell.