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It’s Time For Higher Education’s Original Snowflakes To Grow Up

Snowflakes, safe spaces, cultural appropriation, risk aversion: we all know the drill. After Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election, Northwestern University organised “healing spaces” for students “wounded” by the election results. The University of Massachusetts offered grief counselling.

Meanwhile, at tiny Bowdoin College in Maine, famed for its activist student government (and superior SAT scores), a tequila-themed birthday party featuring (gasp!) mini-sombreros sparked a university investigation. And don’t even ask about Halloween. This 31 October, many British universities will surely be offering special Brexit counselling, but American university administrators habitually go on high alert at that time of year over culturally insensitive Halloween costumes.

Making fun of campus snowflakes is either deeply insensitive or good sport, depending on your point of view, but no one can deny that it has all gotten a bit dreary and repetitive. Everyone seems to have forgotten the most politically incorrect fact of all: that university students are, for the most part, kids. Young adults. Growing up. Finding their place in the world – or whatever you want to call it. Of course, there are many mature students who defy that stereotype, but they’re rarely the ones who feature in snowflake stories. They tend to be more career-focused, as well as more…well, mature.

As a Generation Xer who has made a career of teaching Generation Y and now Generation Z, I have never had any problems with political sensitivities in the classroom. I’ve pushed contrarian positions on controversial issues like climate change, gay marriage and immigration, with precious little pushback. In my experience, it’s hard to get students to talk at all, but if there has ever been a time when it was easy to engage them in class discussions, it was a long time ago. The educational philosopher John Dewey devoted most of his 1916 classic Democracy and Education to the challenge of fostering student participation.

But my quiet snowflakes are snowflakes all the same. They are literally disabled by the everyday anxieties of university life. Nearly 20 per cent of Australian students are medically classified as “disabled”, nearly all of them with a diagnosis of anxiety. That takes their reticence out of my hands as a teacher and places them under the protection of university disability administrators. They are relieved of the responsibility to participate in class and granted extra time on tests and homework. Through an excess of compassion, Australian university administrators have created a generation just as fragile as America’s brittle Trumpophobes.

Both in Australia and abroad, it was the Baby Boomers who first parlayed ordinary student insecurities into existential student fears. Now those same Boomers fall into the prime senior administrator range of 55-73 years old. Trump-wounded Northwestern is led by the economist and Baby Boomer Morton Schapiro. The grief-counselling president of UMass is the politician and Baby Boomer Marty Meehan. Leading the sombrero police at Bowdoin is the banker and Baby Boomer Clayton Rose. Whatever personal ethics these senior administrators bring to their jobs, they all grew up as part of the world’s most famously self-indulgent generation.

Now that the Baby Boomers are running the show, they seem intent on giving students all the disadvantages they wish they had had themselves. Young people have always been more sensitive and more self-concerned than the rest of us. That’s as it should be: it’s all part of growing up. But those of us who have a duty of care to the young have a responsibility to look out for their best interests, and, just like parents, to put their needs ahead of their desires. Of course students want to be coddled. Who doesn’t? But universities should always be carefully weighing the relative merits of grief counselling versus tough love.

Baby Boomers have never wanted to play the bad cop. But by always playing the good cop, to both their students and themselves, they have created a Baby Boomlet generation of self-indulgent youth. My students don’t have to be snowflakes. But, like kids everywhere, if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. These days, they all know that they can always go over my head and appeal to administrators, who will give them their mile. Is it any surprise that they do?

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Sydney-based globalization expert Salvatore Babones is available to speak on the Chinese economy (demographics, growth, technology), the Belt & Road Initiative, global trade networks, and Australia-China relations. Contact: