The Corner

Education

On the Infantilization of the College Campus

What explains the increasing infantilization of American college campuses? Why, for example, do schools encourage students to wail about anything that offends them to the Bias Response Team? Why do students chant and shout to prevent anyone from listening to a guest speaker? Why do administrators feel the need to offer “safe spaces” to students who are distraught over the results of an election?

Or why do some students break into tears when a professor challenges an idea they believe? That happened recently to economics professor Antony Dnes when he examined the notion that labor markets are unfair to women. That incident prompted him to write this piece for the Martin Center: “We Must Reverse the Infantilization of Higher Education.”

Dnes argues that a large part of the infantilization problem is that administrators and students tend to be more averse to risk. Not the usual kind of financial risk, but instead risks associated with possible campus turmoil and social-media peer pressure. Furthermore, colleges increasingly view students as customers who need to be kept happy lest they leave. That makes them prone to accommodating both the snowflake kids who can’t stand hearing ideas that conflict with those they want to believe and the bullies who insist that the school punish those who deviate from Social Justice Warrior ideals.

What can be done?

First, college leaders should stop acting like businesses selling expensive vacations to customers. Dnes writes:

When administrators look upon students simply as paying customers who must be kept happy, they lose sight of the very point of higher education, where struggling for knowledge and self-improvement is a complex undertaking. Losing enrolled students from time to time is the price of keeping academic standards high. That loss includes the possibility that some might leave because they feel ‘unsafe’ with controversial ideas swirling around.

Second, college leaders ought to recognize that we have a problem with students who don’t think they can tolerate the intellectual process of clashing ideas. They need to be proactive in putting students in the right frame of mind for higher education. “Educational leaders,” Dnes writes, “must explain to students that civilization depends on freedom of speech. We need everyone’s willingness to listen to and rationally respond to different views. Leaders must take every opportunity to reinforce the message that thinking based on evidence and controversy is the normal currency of academic training. Shouting down speakers is not.”

I agree. The only problem is that most of our college administrators have been steeped in the “progressive” model of higher education (heavily subsidized daycare for 18–22 year olds) and will find every excuse to change nothing.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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