I have been teaching at a university for more than 30 years and can attest to the maxim that teaching keeps you young. It's refreshing to be around 17- to 21-year-olds year after year. Their spontaneity and enthusiasm are contagious. But so are their naiveté and foolishness.
For if the university keeps instructors young, it does the same for students. While in college, students are mostly in contact with each other. They mix with people of different backgrounds but not of different ages. This limits their opportunity to mature as social beings and to understand how people outside the ivory tower think, speak, and behave.
The recent controversy regarding free speech on college campuses demonstrates what I mean. Groups of students at universities across the country have become incensed by so-called micro-aggressions - small, often unthinking instances of speech or behavior that make them uncomfortable. Administrators and professors have been largely supportive of these students' complaints. Those faculty who have been more critical tend to come from the professional schools of business and law. These are people with more access to life outside the university and to the social and legal ramifications of curtailing free speech in radical ways.
The example of the limits of free speech most often given is that you can't, without reason, yell "fire" in a crowded theater; the dangers that can result are obvious. But what about rude and thoughtless speech? Or humiliating and demeaning speech? What constitutes hate speech? Your hate speech may be my raunchy joke.
We want the university to be a civil place where we are respectful of each other, but mandating this seems to be the worst way of teaching its value. We need to help students think comparatively about when speech is truly incendiary and when it is simply unpleasant or uncalled for; when it requires legal intervention and when it would be better dealt with over a glass of wine or with the help of a mediating friend. Such guidance should be part of a college education.
Drexel University has help doing this because it is a cooperative-education school. Students alternate between the classroom and working in jobs related to their fields of study. Not only does this give them practical experience against which to measure theoretical ideas, but it also throws them into the fray of adult work earlier than most undergraduates. Not only must they be open to people of different religious, ethnic, and class backgrounds, but they must also be tolerant of generational difference - able to explain and listen to the ideas of those who entered life when the world was not the place it is now. As a result, the youthful environment of the university is diluted for them; its untried idealism is tried and qualified.
To erase distinctions between aggression and micro-aggression is to lose the measure of real injustice. Yet to condemn students who may not have such a measure is to be coldly attached to a theoretical idea of freedom and insensitive to the genuine experience, albeit limited, of students.
Instead of castigating them for being spoiled and self-centered, we should provide wider contexts for their experience: expose them to more people of different ages and experiences, encourage them to compare situations, and teach them effective ways of responding to rude, even hateful speech and to the stress it can elicit. This will help them be better prepared for the rough-and-tumble world that awaits - to speak up without lashing out and to model civil discourse as a route to constructive change.