The recent student protests at Yale University and the University of Missouri, sparked by accusations of racial insensitivity and indifference to it on the part of administrators, have been remarkable for their open hostility toward school faculty, the press, and the First Amendment. But they’ve also revealed a paradoxical understanding of the idea of “home” that’s consistent with larger demographic trends among millennials.
We know that millennials are waiting longer to move out of their parents’ homes (including the so-called “boomerang effect” of college grads moving back in with mom and dad), get married, start their own families, and buy their first homes. A recent Los Angeles Times story begins with the observation, “Young women are living with their parents or relatives at a rate not seen since 1940 as more millennial women put off marriage, attend college and face high living expenses.”
Clearly, millennials have a different relationship to home than previous generations. On one hand, they don’t want to leave it. On the other, as the protests have shown, they want to be free from the strictures that come with living under another’s roof. That is, they want to be in charge. Perhaps this is their parents’ fault, as Kevin Williamson suggests at National Revew Online, or maybe blame lies more broadly with endemic campus progressivism and what Ben Domenech calls the rise of “Reset Culture.”
Home Means Never Being Offended
Whatever the cause, somewhere along the way a swath of young people, many of them now enrolled at schools as varied as Yale and Mizzou, got the idea that you could be a full-fledged American adult while also demanding shelter from the tumult of adult life in America. These students do not want to feel uncomfortable or offended in any way, and they want their school administrators to guarantee this. This is what “home” means to them.
Everyone has by now seen the video of the young woman screaming at the professor-in-residence at Yale for disagreeing with her about his role as master of the college. His job is “to create a place of comfort and home for the students,” she shrieks. “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!”
The blow-up was sparked by an email the professor’s wife, a Yale lecturer, had written about how students shouldn’t get too worked up about culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. It was a response to a memo from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Council urging students not to wear cultural Halloween costumes that might offend some students. The professor’s wife had the temerity to suggest that maybe students should work out their differences about Halloween costumes on their own, which is precisely what the students did not want to hear. They wanted the school authorities to intervene.
Where ‘Safe Places’ Aren’t
At Mizzou, students had a similar sentiment: “We have asked the University to create spaces of healing and it failed to do so.” So they set up their own “safe space”— then proceeded to physically force student reporters out of the area. Outsiders are left to wonder exactly what they mean by “safe space,” since it’s obviously not safe for everyone. They seem rather to want a space that is entirely under their control, where nothing happens without their say-so. That their chosen space happens to be a university is of no importance. As one Yalie put it, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”
But they also want the school to facilitate them talking about their pain. The demands of protestors are telling on this point. At Claremont McKenna College, the latest campus to get hit with student protests, students demanded, among many other things, that the school create “institutional positions that serve students of marginalized identities and their unique backgrounds and personal experiences.” Much like Mizzou protesters, they also demanded greater racial diversity among faculty and staff, more administrative resource for minority students, and “mandatory and periodic racial sensitivity trainings for all professors.”
What these students are couching in the language of tolerance and cultural sensitivity is in fact an attempt to exert control over people’s behavior by means of institutional oversight. They point to “microagressions” in the classroom, a lack of administrative support for minority students, a failure to provide “safe spaces” or a “home” for students who feel marginalized—all of it proof, in their minds, of rampant “systematic racism” on America’s college campuses, even though it remains unclear whether some of the inciting racist incidents actually took place.
Forgotten in all this is that the entire purpose of college is to create an intellectual environment where students can sharpen their minds together outside the classroom in casual settings—often by debating one another. The college campus and residences are where young people are supposed to be trying out arguments and ideas on one another, learning how to think and debate and disagree—respectfully but also passionately and, because they are young, experimentally.
You try out an idea or argument, perhaps get bested by a peer, adjust, and come back the next day and try another approach. That process isn’t always comfortable and doesn’t always make you feel secure and cozy. It isn’t supposed to. Intellectual sparring is sometimes unpleasant, but more often it’s exhilarating and enlightening. More importantly, it’s an indispensable part of becoming an educated person, which used to be why people bothered to go to college in the first place.
Turning Life Into a Campus
That so many schools are caving to the demands of student protesters is a serious problem. Eventually, these students will graduate and be confronted by a world devoid of administrators to protect them from offensive speech.
It’s no wonder, then, that millennials are seeking out “homes” that offer some form of institutional oversight. Consider the emerging housing model of dorms for grown-ups. One project, a developer in Syracuse building something called Commonspace, was profiled recently in The Atlantic. Residents lease a 300-square-foot microunit with a tiny kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. These units surround a common areas with a large kitchen, game room, and TV room. To complete the dorm experience, the developers “are hiring a ‘social engineer’ who will facilitate group events and maintain harmony among roommates.”
Thus has the role of coddling university administrator been exported, along with the notion that you can enjoy the benefits of community without putting up with the discomforts of it. These microunits are apparently soundproof, and “while the building might be designed for social activity, the actual apartments are built for introverts who want privacy. And of course, the social engineer is there to moderate disputes and kick out anybody who misbehaves.” Of course.
This trend is growing, with similar co-living spaces in New York, Boston, and elsewhere. Perhaps it makes sense for some people, but it’s no surprise that such arrangements would appeal to millennials who’ve spent their entire lives in carefully controlled environments.
The danger in expecting college to be a “safe place” where you don’t have to hear ideas you find offensive or ever engage in uncomfortable intellectual debate, and where there’s always an administrator to look out for your emotional well-being, is that you might come out expecting the world to be that way, too. Once you’re out here with the rest of us, you’ll look not to your erstwhile college administrators for protection from speech and ideas you don’t like, but to the government.