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College Students Get Comfortable—Often, Too Comfortable

Late last month, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Eric Hoover took a close look at trends in higher education that suggest that students feel more empowered than ever—but also may be using their power to shut out new ideas.

Hoover addresses complaints that discussions of “microaggressions” and requests for “trigger warnings” are making college students unable to handle harsh or controversial viewpoints. He writes:

Are the future caretakers of civilization made of marshmallows? … If students are soft, campuses help make them so.

Students’ attitudes, Hoover argues, are shaped by colleges’ efforts to keep them happy. The key is balance:

Colleges continue to grapple with many dimensions of comfort—intellectual, cultural, social—and how much of it to provide. The challenge, some administrators and professors say, is making students uncomfortable in some ways but comfortable in others. Challenge their ideas and assumptions here, support their identities and interests there.

Having seen what happens when colleges attempt to keep students comfortable in all areas, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff provides a warning:

"As we have a greater expectation of physical comfort, of an ability to choose what media we want to see, what sources we want to read, it does cultivate, almost inevitably, seeking intellectual comfort," says Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "You want people to agree with you. It’s part of human nature."

There’s one problem, though. "It’s just not intellectually healthy," he says.

Students—and everyone else who strives to grow intellectually—should be pushed outside of their comfort zones so that they can learn to defend and develop their own ideas and fairly consider new ones.

Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith College, sees students’ demand for support and rejection of challenges as reflecting a feeling of empowerment. For example, she hypothesizes that students decades ago would not have thought that pressuring International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde not to speak at Smith was an option. In contrast, McCartney says, “Students are empowered today, and that’s mostly good.” But she, too, has concerns about the repercussions for such empowerment when it comes to hearing ideas:

[T]he pushback against commencement speakers challenges the notion that today’s students are politically apathetic.

But there’s a troubling side to those trends, all of which boil down to scrutiny of words—which words students should say, read, hear. "All these things," Ms. McCartney says, "can threaten free speech."

Read Hoover’s article in full for remarks from other free speech advocates and more of Hoover’s analysis.

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