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The Great Campus Debate: Are Today’s College Kids Really Too Sensitive?

2015 has turned into the year the “fragile college student” narrative blew up. The debate about young people’s sensitivity and PC-awareness is raging, but is anyone really right? 

Recent conversations, and well-publicized thinkpieces, about college campuses have criticized young people’s political correctness, calling it over-sensitivity and an inability to deal with the real world. On the other side, Millennial experts and researchers are saying there is more to the story. Here’s how the debate has been shaping up, and the various viewpoints at work:

Point: College students (and Millennials in general) are oversensitive, “fragile,” and overly PC.

Earlier this year, Jerry Seinfeld said in an interview that he would no longer being performing shows at college campuses, because today’s students are too politically correct. He might not have started the debate, but his comments helped spark a heated discussion about college students today that has yet to die down. 

Thinkpieces and public confessions by professors telling tales of over-sensitive college kids began to tally up. The complaints: Campus rules and guidelines are beginning to instruct avoiding “microaggressions,” small actions or words that are seen as violent or offensive (asking a non-white student “Where were you born,” for example). Some professors are also being asked to use “trigger warnings,” warnings when course material may include violence and abuse that could “trigger” the trauma of a student who experienced something similar in the past. The idea of college campuses as “safe spaces” where students are free from being offended is the goal, but many think the rules college students are constructing to protect themselves go too far. This year has also seen a wave of college protests over racial tensions, and some of those protests have spilled into the PC debate.

The reports that sensitivity and political correctness are ruling some college campuses have some blaming childhood coddling. A psychologist at a “large public university in the Midwest” says, “college students…can’t negotiate a balance between consulting with parents and independent decision-making,” and a 2014 study found that a highly structured childhood correlates with less executive functioning skills. These arguments make the case that this PC-sensitivity is actually dangerous, an indication that college students won’t be able to handle the real world. 

But there is another interpretation. According to Neil Howe, “[Millennials’] crusades for emotional security in the classroom are a symptom of the much bigger movement underway to push the culture at large in a kinder, gentler direction.” Howe says that for this generation, political correctness is a way to avoid hurt-feelings, and “a way of life.” Last week, more fuel was added to the PC-debate fire when new research from Pew announced that 40% of Millennials “say the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups.” 

Counterpoint: Not so fast, the truth is more complicated—and Millennial college kids might not be more sensitive at all.

Recent protest on college campuses and reports of over-sensitive, angst-y university students have created a narrative that Millennials in college are fragile and prone to meltdowns. But the reality could be more complicated. 

New York Magazine’s The Science of Us calls the idea of the “ever-more-fragile college student” a “myth.” Their examination of the studies often referenced in articles making these claims call their conclusions into question.

The site also took a closer look at the “against offensive free speech” Pew results to declare those conclusions a “false alarm.” Though there is no data to directly compare the question to, there are “numerous examples” that show that multiple generations have held similar views for decades.

Another argument for the idea that college students aren’t actually more sensitive brings social media into the equation. The Daily Dot argues, “college campuses have always been hotbeds for radical student activism. The difference today is that, because so many students use social media to gather news and shape their political philosophies, collegiate conflagrations that would have died out on their own in the past can instead blaze on indefinitely and spread more widely thanks to the Internet.” The idea here is that college students might have always been this sensitive, though issues being debated might have changed, the biggest change is the existance of social media. What was once a debate contained on campus can become a worldwide news item…and a professor complaining about a few students who are policing political correctness can broadcast their beliefs that ALL college students are too sensitive for their own good. 

Yet another viewpoint should not be left out: some think that student’s striving for political correctness isn’t a bad thing at all