Last week, in an article for the New York Times titled “Why College Is Not Home,” A. Douglas Stone, a Yale physics professor, and Dr. Mary Schwab-Stone, a retired faculty member of the Yale Child Study Center, tackled the Erika Christakis controversy at Yale. The pair took a good stab at making sense of the incident, which involved Christakis’ infamous email criticizing the act of telling students what to wear on Halloween, and the fallout that followed.
In the end, though, the two seemed to reach the same dubious conclusion that many others have reached: that colleges are changing for the worse because they are overly concerned with making students comfortable. Proponents of such a view have some basic ideas right. It is true college students are extremely sensitive, though I doubt that the college students of past generations had skin much thicker. It is also true that censorship of unpopular views on college campuses remains a significant issue, with many colleges rendered philosophical echo chambers.
Yet, neither of these are the result of colleges trying to make their students feel more comfortable or at home. In fact, comfortable students are less likely to be overly sensitive and more likely to engage in open discussion.
Stone and Schwab-Stone zero in on the issue of college as a time of growth into adulthood. They wistfully reminisce on what college purportedly once was. “For previous generations, college was a decisive break from parental supervision; guidance and support needed to come from peers and from within,” they write. In their view, college has lost its purpose as a transitional period into adulthood, thanks to a loss of independence caused by technological advances and sheltering on the part of schools. Apparently, this is a bad thing.
I say hogwash.
The college experience is different today and does, in fact, serve a different purpose. Back when college served such a role, students were a much more homogeneous group. Today we come from a vast array of backgrounds, and arrive with different levels and types of preparation. Colleges no longer are four-year learning grounds for white folks of predominantly the same gender. And that’s a good thing!
With a more varied group comes a greater need for institutional structures to make it work. College today is certainly pre-professional, but its role is not principally pre-adulthood. In the current model, students need to feel as safe as they did back when everyone had a common experience and ideology.
The ongoing glorification of college as an experience of “growing up” is misguided and has its roots in a time when college was not as available to the larger population. Furthermore, in the past, some students likely felt alienated and unwelcome, even if they were not large enough in numbers to be heard by the student body at large.
Colleges should obviously not infantilize their students or censor unpopular viewpoints. But colleges do need to be homes to their students. For colleges to educate and challenge their students, those students first need to feel at home and to feel like they belong on campus.
The Christakis email was not wholly misguided, and she made many fair points. There is no question that some Yale students overreacted to it, but critics of the Yale students seem to ignore context. Christakis should certainly have a right to offer a dissenting opinion, but there is a difference between offering a view in a classroom environment and offering the same view over a blast email to residents of a residential college.
The Yale students were not wrong in their desire to feel at home on their campus.
That is not an unfair request. In fact, it is a necessary request for optimal learning to occur.
Tim Balk is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.