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Snowflakes, or a Moral Vacuum?

by Jeff Frank - February 19, 2018

Language matters. As the term snowflake spreads across our public discourse, we are creating a moral vacuum that doesn’t provide our college-age youth the education they deserve.

The New York Times recently reported on a course at Yale University called “Psychology and the Good Life.” In less than one week, “1,200 students, or nearly one-fourth of Yale undergraduates, were enrolled.”

In response, the Yale student newspaper notes that this course can be read as a cry for help. In support of that claim, multiple news outlets report increasing levels of anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness on college campuses. The drive to study happiness can be tied to the pressure students feel to get into the right college at all costs, but this doesn’t tell the entire story.

Rather, there is a much easier explanation: students are snowflakes. In case you haven’t watched cable news in the last few years, here’s a short explanation. College students think they are special, unique snowflakes. They want “safe spaces” where they won’t be exposed to ideas they disagree with. Instead of struggling with difficult material in courses, they demand “trigger warnings” that will alert them when not to read so that their worldview won’t be challenged. They lack resilience and cannot function outside of their elite liberal bubbles. Studying happiness is a great way to avoid dealing with more difficult realities.

Problem solved. One-fourth of undergraduates at Yale, and students across the United States taking similar courses, should be summarily dismissed. Written off as snowflakes.

It doesn’t matter that this whole outrage about snowflakes may be manufactured to push an agenda that makes it far easier to erode public trust in higher education. It doesn’t matter that college students commit suicide at alarming rates. It doesn’t matter that our students may be deeply concerned about the fate of our country, even at conservative religious colleges, or that they are worried about what automation could do to their jobs prospects.

We keep throwing around a dismissive label without thinking about whether or not we mean what we say. Because, if we began to think about what we say when we call our students snowflakes, we may not like what we discover.

Try an experiment. Think about a real college student you know and not the sensationalized images you are presented with online or on cable. Maybe someone you are related to, maybe someone who goes to your church, maybe someone who babysits your children. Now, think about what that young person wants out of life. Think about her ideals and her aspirations. Now, think about why she might be interested in taking a course that allows her to think about the purpose of life. Is this person a snowflake, or someone trying to do something to make her life better?

As someone who has the good fortune to work with college students every day, the term snowflake does not come to mind as a metaphor for them. Instead, I see young people who have internalized some of our best ideals—like a desire for truth, a sense of justice—and who are struggling to enact them in the world. Though I teach at a non-denominational school, I see young people raised in religious households who want to live their faith in action. I see young people who want to make their parents and other adults proud, and who work tremendously hard to accomplish that. I see young people who are genuinely searching and curious, and who are interested in discovering who they are and how they can live well.

This is why courses like those offered at Yale are so appealing, and it may also explain why college students are offended by hateful speech. Hate speech may be protected speech, but to the college student actively looking for ways to live a good life, it doesn’t seem to hold value. Fight for academic freedom, but don’t be surprised when students are confused as to why we are expending so much energy defending hateful speakers while not expending the same energy to provide them with moral exemplars who will help them live a good life. Instead of spending so much time defending hate, why not exert the same passion to bring people like Jean Vanier or Omid Safi to a college campus?

Students take courses like the one offered at Yale because they offer the promise of being around ideas that will challenge them to live well. Students don’t resist hate speech because they are afraid of the truth. They aren’t snowflakes, but they do want to be in a space freed from cynicism and where they can aspire to become their better self.

There may be a bigger point here as well. Our quickness to denigrate college students may stem from the fact that they’ve hit a nerve. When so many young people jump at the chance to think about how to live well, do we fear that this exposes the ways in which the world we’ve handed down to them fails to provide them with the values they so desperately need? Though there may be short-term political gain to be had by using conspiracies and other means to delegitimize science, the press, higher education, law enforcement; and while it may be expedient to look past the lies and moral transgressions of a leader so long as they serve what we take to be our best interests, we have to know, on some level, that this moral vacuum is deadening and that it fails our youth.

Just last week, I asked students to come up with a list of individuals we would hold out to elementary school students as moral exemplars. After a long silence, one student hesitantly offered: Oprah? After class I got emails from several students—some who are planning to become teachers—worried about what our inability to come up with moral exemplars said about the state of our society and prospects for educating in our time.

It is much easier to call our youth snowflakes than it is to do the work of creating the education they deserve and providing them with the moral exemplars they are searching for. If we are truly concerned about the state of higher education in this country, we will take up this work. But, when we seem more committed to giving some of the worst elements of our public discourse unfettered voice on college campuses than we are with how we might provide a good life for students, we have reason to be concerned that this work will be left undone.

To close with a question: How many adults would sign up for an opportunity to explore how we can help the young in their quest to find happiness? I worry, but I also hope. When we stop mindlessly using words like snowflake and begin attempting to see our students as if we were the moral exemplars they are searching for, new worlds of opportunity will open for them, and for us. The moral courage our students demonstrate when they attempt to realize their world should inspire us to leave the safe space of adulthood and join in their quest to resist the cynicism and quiet desperation that, at times, seems to be encroaching on us all. As another group of provocative speakers begin making the rounds at college campuses, we can respond to student protest and frustration with easy insults, or take up the opportunity to provide them with an education worthy of the name.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 19, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22276, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 10:44:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Jeff Frank
    St. Lawrence University
    E-mail Author
    JEFF FRANK is an assistant professor at St. Lawrence University. His work has appeared in the Teachers College Record, Educational Researcher and several philosophy of education journals.
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