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Editorial: Unfair Criticism of College Students


Friday, April 21, 2017

A little more than a century ago, photographer Lewis Hine took haunting images of children toiling at the huge Amoskeag Mill in Manchester. No one would have asked if they were growing up too slowly. But that’s the question of the day in 2017, when it’s being asked about college students. Are they staying, as Bob Dylan once urged, “forever young?”

Recently a conference at Dartmouth College took up the issue, though it seems many observers have already made up their minds. College students in general have been mocked of late for immature and occasionally violent attacks on free speech — although critics should be careful about slandering a generation for a few incidents. Likewise, the critics decry calls among some for “trigger warnings’’ and “safe spaces,” which we note often come from minorities who feel they are surrounded by a hostile culture. Are they entirely wrong in that?

Conference organizer James Bernard Murphy, a professor of government at Dartmouth, said that by many standards, young people of today are less mature. They are marrying about six years later than young people did in 1960, for one measure.

Psychology professor Jean M. Twenge from San Diego State placed part of the blame for “juvenilization’’ on the self-esteem movement, which reached such extremes that some elementary teachers were wary of correcting mistakes lest they hurt feelings, and young athletes received “participation” trophies.

Joe Asch, a Dartmouth alum and a sponsor of the conference, was blunt in his assessment: “Students seem to feel they should be taken care of, and if they have worries and anxieties it’s up to the college to help them out.”

Still, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor in psychology from Clark University, came to Dartmouth to defend millennials. He denied that they are lazy, overindulged narcissists: “It’s absolutely contradictory to what I’ve found in 25 years of ongoing research and reading other people’s research.”

It’s not easy to determine the accuracy of generalizations about the students of today, but judging by the actual students we encounter, there is cause to reserve judgment. We’re not persuaded young people are coddled and carefree in all matters.

For one thing, school has become a high-stakes competition for those who feel pressured to apply to the best colleges against long odds, which can be beaten only by near-perfect grades and spectacular extracurricular activities — such as creating nonprofits that eradicate exotic diseases, or hiking to the South Pole.

It cannot escape young people’s attention that recent college graduates are taking on a lot of debt — New Hampshire is widely reported to lead the nation, with an average topping $36,000 in 2015 — and that job prospects have been uncertain since the Great Recession.

Does the charge of immaturity apply to community college students, or state university students who take semesters off to earn money for tuition, or do they best apply to certain schools that cater mostly to a privileged, wealthier demographic? Is the discussion of maturity mostly in itself an elite exercise?

It’s quite possible that the pressures of early adulthood aren’t really gone — they’re just different. Older adults might have to talk to an actual college student to learn all about them.