A Collegiate Fear of Discomfort

"Colby College: Miller Library" by Roman Boed is licensed under by CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

College, particularly at a liberal arts institution, is a time for young adults to gain exposure to a wealth of new ideas and perspectives – typically, in order to become more open-minded and responsible members of society. A certain amount of discomfort is guaranteed to come with this notion. Having one’s beliefs and previous notions challenged can be difficult to process at times. However, today’s generation of college students are increasingly becoming less willing to participate in this discourse in the name of offensiveness and mental health. Additionally, on some campuses, “trigger warnings” have become a normal preface to any topic that could potentially be considered sensitive to someone, and the quantity of topics included in this range only continues to grow.

The September 2015 issue of The Atlantic included a lengthy and thought provoking article titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” which delves deeply into this subject. This article cites numerous instances of people claiming to feel unsafe and uncomfortable at higher education institutions; ranging from a presentation about microaggressions that itself was seen as a microaggression, to an animal cruelty protest over bringing a camel to campus for “Hump Day” in reference to the popular TV commercial. As the authors of the aforementioned The Atlantic article state, “It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

Despite the strong point being made about shielding current college students from anything that could potentially upset them, there is also a great importance in acknowledging that many topics on college campuses, such as sexual assault and modern race conflicts, do need to be handled with care given the deep personal relevance that these subjects have to many students. Given this evident conflict, where do educators and administrators need to draw the line in terms of finding a balance between educating and protecting? Students undoubtedly need to feel safe in their learning environment in order to actively participate and grow, but has our generation become overly sensitive and too keen on using the offensiveness or emotional health card to avoid discussing topics or ideas that make them uncomfortable?

As soon-to-be members of the “real world”, we cannot forget that the institutional shields that protect us now will soon vanish and expose us to these uncomfortable situations. Should we take advantage of this comfortable bubble for as long as we can, or should we be arming ourselves to meet the vast world we are about to enter?