Woe to the modern undergraduate.
She and her classmates are coddled, fragile, entitled, assertive, not assertive enough, ambitious, not ambitious enough. They spend too much time staring at cellphones and being antisocial, or too much time partying and being social. They’re always lazing around their dorm rooms, or bouncing frantically between class and clubs and sports and a million other activities.
They’re being mindlessly indoctrinated, or too close-minded to learn anything. They’re too disengaged, or protesting too radically. They don’t understand free speech, or they’re speaking out too freely.
Those are my takeaways from the back-to-school headlines across the country. Whatever it is our students are doing, they’re doing it wrong.
And to be sure, some of them are. There are about 20 million college students fanned out across these great United States. Statistically, quite a few of them are likely to be saying or doing something stupid at any given moment.
But this has little to do with any sociological or political crisis, and a lot to do with the fact that college students are mostly young and entirely human. You can find evidence for whatever generational defect you prefer.
’Twas ever thus, shall ever be. The real difference between this generation and their predecessors isn’t in personal character, but in the technological and media culture that surrounds them.
The kind of small controversies and intemperate remarks that have always been a part of campus life are now broadcast to the world, with ossified partisans on all sides eager to elevate a spat among 19-year-olds into a sign of cultural doom.
As “news” is defined ever downward online and on television, college students become easy fodder for the righteous outrage of adults who ought to know better. Back in the dark ages when I was in school – all of 10 years ago – my half-baked musings about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were confined to spiral-bound notebooks and face-to-face conversations.
Today, with pervasive social media and twitchy news outlets, the normal back-and-forth of campus life can bring down a vortex of public vitriol. A misguided petition among undergraduates becomes a national headline; an out-of-context reading assignment is parsed and parodied on cable news; an argument on the quad ricochets across social media.
We’re seeing the first generation of students raised within our 24-hour, internet-driven political culture. And many are weary of it before they’ve ever cast a ballot or set foot on campus.
I recently joined a group of first-year students on a retreat to Black Mountain, where they put their phones down, spent time outside and had the chance to fully meet one another and talk about their hopes for college life. One of the recurring themes in those discussions was a desire for real dialogue, for the chance to work out their thoughts and feelings about the world without being dragooned into public warfare.
“I want to talk about politics without someone immediately deciding they hate me,” said one young woman, receiving hearty nods of recognition from her classmates.
Last year, students packed one of the largest auditoriums at Carolina to hear Frank Bruni, the New York Times columnist, deliver an eloquent call for patience and good faith. “Our technology clusters us into narrow groups,” he warned. “So do our media and our politics.”
Bruni denounced the temptation to self-sequester, to carve out communities that admit only like-minded friends and see only devious enemies. He spoke for humility and against self-righteousness. And he found a deeply receptive audience.
It’s easy to fixate on all that’s wrong with college and college students. And we should absolutely fight over the culture and values that are promoted on campus – that’s worthy ground.
But we should do it in a way that recognizes students for what they are: well-meaning people working against considerable odds to figure out their place in the world. That may not make headlines, but it remains an endless source of optimism and awe for those of us lucky enough to see it every day.
Eric Johnson works in the UNC Chapel Hill Office of Scholarships and Student Aid. The views expressed here are his own.