Psychology Today sometimes publishes some pretty wonky stuff, but this article, about the emotional resilience of American college students—or rather its decline—rings true from the kind of incidents (granted, anecdotes) documented on this site. Further, its author, Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston University and expert in educational psychology, has impeccable credentials.
In his piece, “Declining student resilience: a serious problem for colleges,” Gray first documents the growing problem of the emotional fragility of students, and, at the end, suggests a cause. As I said, I’m not aware of any concerted psychological studies of students’ emotional states, although Gray implies that there’s documentation about growing problems with student mental health. Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that students seem increasingly more upset by things that challenge them, and are demanding accommodation, whether that accommodation involves getting higher grades or suppressing disturbing ideas. I’ve written a lot about “trigger warnings”, “safe spaces,” and student protests against what’s call “hate speech”: these are phenomena of the last decade or so, and anyone who’s been teaching for a long time recognizes that. But Gray documents it with more examples:
A year ago I received an invitation from the head of Counseling Services at a major university to join faculty and administrators for discussions about how to deal with the decline in resilienceamong students. At the first meeting, we learned that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.
Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when in comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices. Many students, they said, now view a C, or sometimes even a B, as failure, and they interpret such “failure” as the end of the world. Faculty also noted an increased tendency for students to blame them (the faculty) for low grades—they weren’t explicit enough in telling the students just what the test would cover or just what would distinguish a good paper from a bad one. They described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more, or more effectively. Much of the discussions had to do with the amount of handholding faculty should do versus the degree to which the response should be something like, “Buck up, this is college.” Does the first response simply play into and perpetuate students’ neediness and unwillingness to take responsibility? Does the second response create the possibility of serious emotional breakdown, or, who knows, maybe even suicide?
The dilemma of the last two sentences is something I’ve faced. My first response, which of course is based on my own experience in college, is to tell the students to “tough it out.” But that’s uncharitable, for we receive these students with their emotionality already formed by what happened to them before college (see below). I suggest one solution below, but that’s only a quick fix to a problem that runs deeper.
That head of counseling mentioned by Gray reports that this trend appears to be nationwide, accompanied by a growing number of reports of mental health issues among students. He added, “The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the University and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.” And that is indeed the case.
What is going on here, and what do we do about it? One solution, I think, is to train students not only in “sensitivity” to diverse viewpoints when they enter college, but also to train them in listening to differing opinions without taking offense. That, to me, seems an eminently viable tactic: let incoming students read, for instance, the University of Chicago’s “free expression” standards, and then let them discuss them. We must somehow teach students why universities should be places where all viewpoints should be aired, and that viewpoints that seem offensive or incorrect can be countered with other speech.
Here’s Geoff Stone, the law professor at the U of C and chair of the committee that produced our standards:
But this alone won’t solve the problem, for students arrive at the University already hypersensitive and dependent:
We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention. So now, here’s what we have. Young people,18 years and older, going to college still unable or unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, still feeling that if a problem arises they need an adult to solve it.
Gray suggests that the cause of this problem is “helicopter parenting”: the tendency of parents to hover about their children, protecting them from all possible ills, dangers, and offenses. Those of us of a certain age know this: when I was a kid of 10 or so, I was allowed to walk to school on my own and, after school, ride my bike over to my friends’ houses, where we’d then take off in juvenile packs to explore our surroundings. There was no adult supervision save the order that we be home by dinner. That not only doesn’t happen any more, but parents who permit such roaming can (and have been) arrested.
Gray adds, though, that “helicopter parenting” reflects of other social trends, including “the continuous exhortations from ‘experts’ about the dangers of letting kids be, victims of the increased power of the school system and the schooling mentality that says kids develop best when carefully guided and supervised by adults, and victims of increased legal and social sanctions for allowing kids into public spaces without adult accompaniment.”
Yes, but why now? If Gray is right, what has happened in society to create people’s need to protect children from everything?