To End Campus Tantrums, Treat Young People Like Adults

To End Campus Tantrums, Treat Young People Like Adults

We’re finding out what happens when youngsters grow up after having been shielded as much as possible from every obstacle and uncomfortable situation.
Maria Thielman
By

The idea that a young person is someone to be protected, shielded, and treated delicately at all costs is part of what’s behind universities letting students force their professors out (as Yale just did) because they “hurt our feelings,” and part of why people don’t know how to debate anymore and just engage in shouting matches. It’s part of why I meet college students who can’t read or write, and why so many young people go thousands of dollars into debt merely so employers will look at their résumé.

We act like minors are in constant need of supervision and cannot be trusted to use common sense. For our physical protection, we’re not permitted to operate a gas pump, buy firecrackers, walk home from the park, or be left outside unattended for 45 minutes in our own yard. For our emotional protection, we’re not allowed to play with toy guns, and our teachers are not allowed to grade with red pens because we might feel hurt.

“High school is the easiest time of your life” is a very popular statement among college students now, who recall their last years as minors before they were thrown into the world of adults. I’m a transfer student from a community college, and the semester before I left to study at Virginia Tech, I heard these complaints from my classmates in Calculus II.

Young People Can Handle a Lot More

When I did, I usually looked around at the ones who were talking, then often met the glances of Luke and Gregory, who were looking over their shoulders from the row in front of me. We smiled and laughed with the rest, but couldn’t actually relate because we were what I call Kids in Disguise (KIDs)—middle-school and high-school-aged youngsters masquerading as typical freshmen and sophomores. Most of us are either dual-enrolled or graduated high school early.

Starbursts candy rewarded those who knew the difference between a job and a career.

I entered college at 14 and thus took on, if only to those who didn’t know me, the label of “adult.” Since that summer almost three years ago, I’ve been put back into to the category of minor once: when I checked into the required session for summer applicants for a teen job.

I went because the coordinators didn’t tell me what the “mandatory” two-hour lecture covered. Expecting a layout of the job description, orientation, and perhaps a tour of the facilities, I got “how to dress for an interview,” “how to give a proper handshake,” a copy of a standard application I could’ve easily downloaded online, and a reminder of the important dates that were already available on the flyer that advertised those positions. Then, Starbursts candy as a reward for those who knew the difference between a job and a career.

After I tried to tell the coordinators I had a class, they said applicants weren’t allowed to leave early because this was “really important, and you should really attend the whole thing.”

I left and returned to class, but wondered about the other 200 applicants in the room who found this demeaning treatment normal. What happens when they’re in a real job and hand-holding is not available? What happens when youngsters grow up after having been shielded as much as possible from every obstacle and uncomfortable situation?

College Kids Can’t Handle College

They’ll think continuing that treatment is their birthright. Hence we have a new generation that believes they have a right to not be offended. If they enter a field where professors don’t give them that satisfaction (e.g., the sciences), they will gripe, complain, and cuss, but more importantly they will flounder.

My job included helping kids develop college-survival skills, as many didn’t know how to take notes or manage their time.

I’d like to focus on the education effects that stem from coddling minors. In my sophomore year, my community college hired me to help underclassmen with subjects for which I’d earned credit. Jack (everyone in this essay has a pseudonym) was evidently stressed even as I entered a private cubicle to greet him. When I asked him to show me what he was working on, he presented a stack of papers about adding and subtracting fractions.

My job included helping kids develop college-survival skills, as many didn’t know how to take notes or manage their time. Listening to complaints from students in a general chemistry class about how even a community college was so much more difficult than high school made it apparent they lacked such skills because those skills had not been previously necessary. I learned they were accustomed to regular reminders for homework, weekly fill-in-the-blank PowerPoint notes, and all-multiple-choice tests.

Jack and these freshman chemistry students were not prepared for college. Even if one assumed these students were scraped off the bottom of the barrel anyway because they were in a community college (I respectfully disagree with that assessment), what I encountered is wholly unacceptable—the bottom of the barrel should not be this incompetent. After 12 years of school, you should know how to add and subtract, take notes, and manage your time.

Adults Deserve Blame, Too

While one might blame students for not taking academics seriously enough in high school, the greater fault lies with the adults in schools for permitting such low standards. Thankfully, community college tuition is less onerous for those who have some catching up to do. Since community colleges in Virginia do not turn any high-school graduates away, they offer remedial courses for those who did not place into college English and math.

Those who do perform at the appropriate level tend to have inflated opinions about themselves because they mistakenly believe they have been doing more than is necessary.

While some students in the developmental programs are immigrants who have never been to an American high school, and others are returning after many years and understandably have forgotten basic concepts, at least half of those in remediation were very recent graduates. Jack, like so many others, only later realized he should have learned this material in high school and ended up having to learn it at a local community college in a shorter period of time, under a harsher grading system, and at college tuition rates.

Intentionally or not, if high schools are not ensuring knowledge of arithmetic or teachers are training students to depend on regular reminders and unsolicited feedback, many high school graduates will not recognize their underperformance and lack of independence. Meanwhile, others who do perform at the appropriate level tend to have inflated opinions about themselves because they mistakenly believe they have been doing more than is necessary.

Just as at the community college, the freshmen at Virginia Tech who took a few Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school tended to do better than those who did not. However, being acclimated to succeeding without work introduced a new kind of problem. I’ve had quite a few long conversations with frustrated youngsters who breezed through high school, entered the university expecting they would succeed without really trying, and then had their expectations shattered by an F grade.

For many students, learning to take notes, manage time, and let go of enough pride to join a study group can take anywhere from a semester to a year. (It definitely took a year for me to learn how to take legible, re-readable notes.) Under current college costs, that’s not time most can afford to lose. An abysmal minimum sets everyone up for failure in one form or another.

Low Standards Hurt High Performers

That is, except for those who either had no overblown expectations of themselves, or were already so used to performing at the “adult” level that they had a buffer. Some mature high-schoolers put great effort into preparing for college through AP credit, dual-enrollment, internships, and leadership opportunities. Homeschoolers and KIDs who never realized how low expectations are for people their age either compare themselves to their siblings or adults. In my experience, all these groups did fine.

How valuable is a credential that does not guarantee the holder has basic life skills or familiarity with arithmetic?

What about high school graduates who cannot afford postsecondary education? How valuable is a credential that does not guarantee the holder has basic life skills or familiarity with arithmetic? The ones who suffer most from the low standards are those who challenge themselves, only to receive the same award as those who didn’t.

A credential, unless proven otherwise, is only as valuable as the minimum amount of work required to earn it. Employers do not value a high-school diploma anymore. Otherwise, why would it be required for entry-level and minimum-wage jobs? High schools that produce underperforming graduates force serious students to look elsewhere to distinguish themselves.

As long as the minimum graduation requirements are so low that anyone looking for employment must prove he is capable of more, earnest students will accept tuition-paying debt in an attempt to stand out. Colleges and universities control the game and can charge whatever they want because of the resulting demand.

Young People Crave Challenges

I cannot understand why high schools do not use the four years they have more efficiently. These are four of the most impressionable years of young adults’ lives, when creativity, sense of adventure, and willingness to explore are at their peaks. The job of a supervising adult is not to coddle youngsters, but to encourage them to step outside their comfort zones.

The job of a supervising adult is not to coddle youngsters, but to encourage them to step outside their comfort zones.

It wasn’t my decision to start college courses at 14—it was my dad’s. I argued with him, protested, and said I wouldn’t cut it. He nodded his head and handed me my course schedule for 17 credits. It was grueling. There were meltdowns. Books were thrown across the room. But I pushed through, and afterwards I thought I was very smart. Then I realized I wasn’t the only one who could do that.

Dual-enrollment students and other KIDs were everywhere. In calculus class, I found two 16-year-old classmates with whom I later formed a study group. Then in chemistry class, Alison, a governor’s school participant and national champion in martial arts, started college at 15 and subsequently graduated from our community college as the number one recipient of academic distinctions and merit scholarships.

When I applied to tutor, my new employer’s nonchalant reaction at learning my age seemed odd until I discovered that Josh, one of the senior engineering tutors, had also started at 15 and was completing his associate’s before his eighteenth birthday.

Then there was Garth from my sister’s physics class, who had started at 14 and whose sister had started even earlier, at 13. Last but not least, there’s Gregory. When I asked, he told me he’d began as a full-time student at the age of 12 and apparently held the record for the youngest to attend that college. The only other person in the room went into complete shock at the revelation, but I was getting used to this sort of thing and responded with, “I wish I’d done that.”

Early College Isn’t a Perfect Option

All of us KIDs have essentially rejected the category of minor, with all the rights of coddling, protections, and demeaning expectations therein. But we don’t belong in college. Between high school as it is and starting adult life too early in college, the second was the lesser evil. There are two setbacks that come with that decision.

If children started coming to college, it would just become the new high school, and then college graduates will have to get even more credentials to stand out from the crowd.

First, there are certain things youngsters ought not to deal with, like thousands of dollars in student debt or a “sweet sixteenth” on a day they don’t get back home from classes or work until 9 p.m. Second, we’re making the “everyone’s-going-to-college-now-and-now-college-has-lost-value” problem worse.

For example, one cheerful and charismatic fellow tutor, Sophia, who is now a liberal arts major at Old Dominion, welcomed Josh and me to the department family, but definitely preferred us to remain exceptions to the norm. During a Christmas party, I told her how happy I was to meet so many KIDs and couldn’t help wonder how many more might be out there. She sipped her drink and said she hoped she wouldn’t see any more.

She predicted that if children started coming to college, it would just become the new high school, and then college graduates will have to get even more credentials to stand out from the crowd. More money, more years in school. Sophia already resented going into debt for a bachelor’s, so the concern about KIDs altering the labor competition landscape was completely understandable.

Just like Sophia predicted, high schools and community colleges already allow gifted high schoolers to graduate with an associate degree in addition to their high-school diploma. But because society views minors as incompetent, allowing ambitious members of that invisible group to graduate with an associate’s as well as a high-school diploma may encourage employers to regard a bachelor’s even less seriously than they already do.

Don’t Lower Standards, Fail Those Who Refuse to Achieve Them

Respect for minors in the form of a high standard they are expected to meet should not be only for the gifted. As a former college staff member, a college student, and now a 17-year-old, I believe standards for high-school graduation must be raised to ensure that higher-performing students receive credentials they can gladly present to employers. This would especially be a boon if they’re the kind who’d prefer not to spend another minute longer in the classroom or don’t have enough money to continue education without an expensive loan.

Society must stop viewing minors as being completely incapable of learning life’s lessons.

People used to not be judged for not completing college. Nowadays college dropouts are called “losers” and high-school dropouts are treated even worse for not completing the “easiest part of their lives.” If high school were not described so, then dropouts might find themselves in a more accommodating economic environment.

Colleges would then be attended mainly by those who are interested enough or well-off enough to devote time and money into advanced learning, instead of by people going because “everyone else is doing it.” Teachers then wouldn’t have to “babysit” KIDs like me (because let’s face it, what PhD wants a 14-year-old wearing braces in his classroom?).

Society must stop viewing minors as being completely incapable of learning life’s lessons. High-school administrators could easily stuff an associate degree’s worth of training in those four years and give that training to everyone. If a student doesn’t want to learn, and refuses every method of support, don’t graduate them. Giving them a credential they obviously have no intention of earning only forces those who deserved theirs to seek a different one.

Believe We All Can Achieve More

It’s important to distinguish between attendees who are indifferent and students who struggle. The latter can indeed succeed with support. Jack and many others completed their studies and learned in one year what high-school teachers apparently could not teach in four. When I last saw Jack, he was progressing through higher levels of math and well on his way to finish an associate’s. His success story is not the only one; I have repeatedly seen developmental instructors in my college successfully teach basic math and writing, despite their students’ inability to grasp the material in high-school.

Jack and many others completed their studies and learned in one year what high-school teachers apparently could not teach in four.

My tutoring mentor was a woman who in high school had been told she wasn’t college material. After years working retail, she came to the community college looking to jumpstart her education. She wrote award-winning essays and became a kick-ass tutor for English and every math class up to calculus, and now attends graduate school at George Mason.

I struggled with science. But my chemistry professor treated me as an adult and expected me to earn my grade like one because she believed I could. Now I’m majoring in chemical engineering. All of us are happy now, but we didn’t get here by being told, “Don’t push yourself. Just settle for something easier.”

People can succeed if they want to. The question is whether to let them realize that potential. For a society that says kids should be believed in and accepted no matter what, we are not following our own advice terribly well. Adults no longer seem to believe in children’s ability to handle themselves.

But we minors need you to believe in that ability. We need you to support us, but also challenge us to grow. As every college student knows, we’re not going to learn by being babied. We will fall. We must get hurt. At some point, we should feel like throwing the book or calculator (or both) across the room, then make the decision to fetch them back and try another problem.

Every adult is a teacher. From you, we learn life’s lessons. Help us do what we’re supposed to do. Help us grow up.

Maria Thielman graduated from Germanna Community College in December 2014 with an associate's degree at the age of sixteen. She now pursues a bachelor’s in chemical engineering at Virginia Tech. Her views reflect no institution she is affiliated with.

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