There is much talk lately of an over-parenting crisis. In her book How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims, a dean at Stanford University, tells horror stories about parents who speak for, plan for, and advocate for their college-aged children, afraid to let go lest their precious charges experience failure or rejection. She reports that over-parented young adults remain dependent upon their parents to do what they should do for themselves—things like registering for classes, doing laundry, resolving interpersonal problems, and planning their future.
In a recent Atlantic article, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt report that college professors and university administrations continue the coddling, at least when it comes to the emotional and intellectual lives of students. Under pressure from hyper-sensitive students or anxious administrators, or simply because they don’t want to needlessly upset anyone, professors have begun issuing “trigger warnings” before exposing students to potentially disturbing readings or lectures. Meanwhile, campus leaders complain about “microaggressions”—comments that may not be intentionally offensive, but that are full of latent aggression in their racial or political insensitivity. An example: “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.” (The millennial version: Everyone can get a trophy in this society, if they show up.)
An image is emerging of millennial patheticus, a comically thin-skinned creature rendered apoplectic by the harsh realities of daily life and ordinary speech. Over-parented at home, he or she must be handled delicately during college, protected from anything that might disturb or offend. It’s tempting to want to tell parents, college administrators, and faculty to treat these young people as the adults they are and tell them to grow up already.
And yet, compared to college students in the past, millennials are in some ways woefully under-parented. Before the 1960s, college authorities existed in loco parentis, which meant that when you sent your children away to college, the college assumed parental authority over them. Adults supervised dorm life and carefully monitored social visits between young men and women, making sure that visits remained chaste and that all young women had safely returned to their rooms by a respectable hour. Students could be expelled at will, without due process, for immoral behavior. This changed in the 1960s, mainly because of lawsuits brought by students disciplined for joining in civil rights protests and because of the Free Speech Movement. College students became full adults whose constitutional rights the courts began to protect.
Despite being declared adults, though, many college students still thought and acted like teenagers. Freed from parental authority, they behaved as one might suppose they would, particularly in the wake of the sexual revolution. The result has been an increasingly coarse hook-up culture that has, of late, devolved into what is being called a “rape culture.”
All but the most religious colleges responded to the sexual revolution on campus in amoral terms, by promoting “safe sex.” Recently, in response to increasing reports of sexual assault, the same institutions have focused all their moral energies on making sure everyone having sex has consented to every single aspect of the encounter. Mainstream colleges and universities are unwilling to offer any moral guidance to their students about sexuality and dating behavior apart from “make sure she says yes before each and every thing you do,” which is really more legal guidance than it is moral guidance. No one is telling students to stop getting drunk and hooking up with strangers, because that would be “blaming the victim.”
No one is suggesting cultural or moral solutions, because all of the sensible possibilities (such as promoting a more civilized and sober dating culture, reminding men of their duty as men to protect vulnerable women, or advising women to carefully judge a man’s character before entering a private space with him) involve acknowledging what it has become politically incorrect to admit: that there are real social and biological differences between men and women. Rather, administrators treat rape as a political problem. The ultimate fix? More gender equality, that is, more ideological denial of gender difference. As Mona Charen writes in The Federalist about this issue, “progressives survey a flood and prescribe rain.”
The effort once spent developing college students’ delicate moral sensibilities, that is their character, is now spent developing their delicate political sensibilities. The result is a generation of college students plagued by sexual assault and accusations of sexual assault who believe that microaggressions are serious problems and sexual morality is a useless fiction.
From this perspective, the popularity of trigger warnings isn’t surprising. On most campuses, it’s one of the only remaining ways that professors can exercise compassionate care of their students, who, despite having crossed the magical threshold of the age of eighteen, retain needs beyond the intellectual. Having rejected the possibility of providing moral, spiritual, or even common sense guidance, colleges and universities have precious few tools left with which to care for students. When a toxic sexual culture does its harm, universities turn to their tool box and offer what they have: mental health care and political ideology. Possessing only a hammer and a power drill, they insist that's all they need to build a house. The result is predictably bizarre.
Most liberals find political speech liberating and moral speech oppressive, but the evidence suggests the opposite. Politicizing the personal while withholding moral guidance has made young adults more mentally and emotionally fragile and less, not more, capable of independence and autonomy.
On all but the most religious campuses, a return to the campus culture of the days of in loco parentis is not possible. And yet, if the goal is to produce independent, responsible, mature adults, college leaders need to find and polish those old, forgotten tools called virtue and character. If that’s parenting, we need more, not less of it.
Molly Oshatz writes from Mountain View, California.