Olivia Legaspi is a Haverford College freshman. After working at McDonalds during the summer to save up enough for her contribution to her financial aid package, she entered into the dream-world of elite higher education where everyone is encouraged to speak up, feel safe, and give priority to their needs and feelings.
In an essay at Odyssey, she reflects on the irrelevance—even unhelpfulness—of a coddling culture for the vast majority of people, who have to learn how to deal with the sometimes difficult give-and-take of everyday life. At her McDonald's job “there was no ‘trigger warning' for when a customer was about to start yelling, when the restaurant would get so busy that I had no time to breathe between orders and the noise would make me feel faint, when a group of men in the drive-thru would whistle and catcall me as they pulled away. The sexual harassment I experienced there is another story entirely.”
Not ideal circumstances, to be sure, but “from that, I grew; I learned to take care of myself in ways that didn’t inconvenience anyone, draw unnecessary attention to myself, or interfere with the structures in place and the work which had to be done.”
She points out an obvious fact, which is that the therapeutic coddling offered by elite colleges and universities is a luxury. “Those of us who need to work in order to support ourselves and pay tuition cannot afford to internalize the soft, self-centered mindset presented by our peers and customs folk at Haverford — had I gone to a manager and complained that I become anxious when the restaurant is busy or that hearing complaints from customers made me nervous, the manager would have concluded that this was simply not the right job for me. I would have gone home, and I would have been unable to pay the student contribution from summer work that is built into my financial aid package.”
And in a very real way this luxury isn't helpful. As Jonathan Haidt points out, we've created an elite culture that coddles rather than challenges young people. Legaspi: “McDonald’s strengthened my character, my work ethic, and expanded my capacity for resilience, valuable lessons which could not be learned in the ‘safe spaces' of Haverford’s campus. We must remember that putting oneself first is the essence of privilege, and that, in order to grow, we must leave this selfish mindset behind.”
We should cultivate communities of care that uplift rather than run down, that encourage rather than discourage. Moreover, it is entirely fitting that student life at Haverford isn't like a McDonald's workplace. But Legaspi is surely right remind her fellow students to avoid taking such an environment for granted, or worse to think its something they're entitled to. In most of the affairs of life (including education, finally), it's not about me—and it shouldn't be.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.