Op-Ed

Baby boomers, don't be so quick to mock colleges on 'trigger warnings' and 'micro-aggressions'

Everyone knows that kids find their elders deeply uncool. We'll reveal our own uncoolness by citing John Sebastian's 1969 song "Younger Generation" to prove the point. "Why must every generation think their folks are square?" he asks. The lyrics go on to offer an uncomfortable futuristic scenario: a child who tells his dad about taking LSD and riding a toy vehicle that goes 200 miles an hour.

But as college presidents, we've noticed an odd trend. Turning the Sebastian lyric on its head, baby boomer pundits are accusing the younger generation of, in effect, being square. They ridicule students for asking professors to provide advance warning about disturbing materials — so-called trigger warnings — and mock administrators trying to better protect students on campus. Commentators portray students who make such requests as hypersensitive, self-involved and censorial — which is to say, the uncool opposite of the tolerant and communal, anything-goes ethos the Woodstock generation espoused.

Granted, the more extreme examples of these appeals on college campuses provide easy targets. Pundits on both the left and the right had a month of field days last spring after students at Oberlin College and Georgetown University cautioned that just listening to a speech by Christina Hoff Sommers, an author and critic of contemporary feminism, could cause trauma. Comedians and satirists have garnered laughs with confections such as a recent article in the Onion headlined, "Parents Dedicate New College Safe Space in Honor of Daughter Who Felt Weird in Class Once."

Also seemingly worthy of scorn is the notion of "micro-aggressions" — that "innocent" comments might leave recipients feeling slighted. Why, we hear, can't students just toughen up and prepare to face the real world?

But it would be dishonest, amid all the attention directed at the extremes, to fail to see that many students have genuine concerns and deserve to be taken seriously. Those who offer blanket indictments of calls for safer spaces and content notices would do well to sit face to face, as we have, with anguished 18-year-olds.

One of us watched a brilliant young African American woman who had been highly engaged on campus and in her course work, an "A" student, recoil from her classes and her classmates after returning to her dormitory one afternoon. There, in the place she had come to consider her home halfway across the country from where she grew up, she was confronted with racist slurs scrawled on posters she had put up as part of a job she held on campus to help cover expenses.

Less traumatic but nonetheless deeply upsetting are those little comments that haunt us all — when someone compliments an Asian American from Ohio on his "good English" or orders drinks from an African American guest at a cocktail party. Both of us, when we were younger, were told that we didn't "look Jewish." If such remarks don't wound us to the core, why is it that we remember them for a lifetime?

Derald Wing Sue, a professor at Columbia University and the lead author on the 2007 study that gave rise to a body of research and policy on micro-aggressions, has said that his interest in the topic derives in part from slights he experienced as a Chinese American.

Sue and other researchers point to studies that suggest people suffer psychological harm from repeated affronts. And we've both heard from counseling staff about students who were victims of sexual and other abuse who experienced setbacks after being exposed to course materials without having been given an opportunity to prepare themselves psychologically.

For university officials, finding the best approach to take in such situations is no easy matter. We must continually ensure a long list of rights and responsibilities on our campuses that sometimes are in conflict with one another: free speech and public safety; environments in which students can concentrate on their studies and those that advance their growth by unsettling their beliefs. As educators, we seek to develop in our students the cultural literacy that reduces the chances that someone will inadvertently belittle another.

Wholesale denouncements of young people's concerns only hinder our efforts to do right by our students. Statements like the following sound more informed than they actually are: "Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one's own feelings — much to the detriment of society as a whole." So wrote author Jenny Jarvie in the New Republic, echoing much of the commentary on this topic — and, we would note, the condemnation of rock 'n' roll music in its early days and Vietnam War protesters a decade later.

Today's college students would not be struggling to deal with sexual assault and racism from their childhoods and on our campuses had their parents and grandparents made the world as harmonious as we imagined we would. Let's hope the "square" generation will do a better job than we did.

Barry Glassner is president and a professor of sociology at Lewis & Clark College. Morton Schapiro is president and a professor of economics at Northwestern University.

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