No, professor, you shouldn't treat the oversized toddlers in your classroom like 'children'

April 2015

On campuses across the country, authoritarianism is back in vogue. Orwellian concepts like “free speech zones,” pens into which those who intend to speak freely and openly are consigned so as to not offend the fragile little porcelain dolls who presumably make up the majority of the nation’s student bodies, are condoned. Classes for which students pay exorbitant and inflated prices to attend are canceled so as to allow enrollees to attend progressive protests. Even at the graduate level in exclusive institutions like Harvard, students pen mortifying manifestos touting their victimhood and insist that this dubious claim should yield them even more privilege and freedom from labor and scrutiny.

These are the actions of children, and that’s exactly what University of Chicago Law School Professor Eric Posner has called them. “Students today are more like children than adults and need protection,” read the subhead in a controversial piece he wrote for Slate. But Posner is not lamenting the retarded emotional and intellectual growth of the next generation of Americans; he is celebrating it. In a fantastically self-contradictory essay on the subject, Posner averred that America’s college students are little more than infants who demand to be mollycoddled by the benevolent autocrats at the head of the classroom.

“There is a popular, romantic notion that students receive their university education through free and open debate about the issues of the day,” Posner wrote. “ Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

“Students who enter college know hardly anything at all—that’s why they need an education,” he continued. Take that, America’s public high schools. “Classroom teachers know students won’t learn anything if they blab on about their opinions,” Posner added. “Teachers are dictators who carefully control what students say to one another.”

To an extent, he is correct when he contends that professors police their students’ speech and writing, and most responsible teachers would never allow certain dangerous ideas to take root among their students. This does, however, defeat the purpose of education. Colleges should be places where students are able to freely explore intellectual concepts, even dangerous and prejudicial notions, with the idea being that daylight is the most potent disinfectant.

Posner contended that the speech most in need of policing is the kind that might offend those young folk who are consumed by identity politics. Homophobic or anti-Semitic rhetoric is offensive, but those concepts are not as a pressing a threat to liberty today as are, say, erecting complex ideological justifications for censorship while contending that this suppression of free thought is not only noble and righteous but clamored for by the insipient masses.

And here we encounter the first of Posner’s glaring self-contradictions. He contended that it is the educator who serves as benign “dictator” when enforcing codes of appropriate thought, but Posner later asserted that it is the student who demands paternalism from his or her educators. “While critics sometimes give the impression that lefty professors and clueless administrators originated the speech and sex codes, the truth is that universities adopted them because that’s what most students want,” Posner argued. “If students want to learn biology and art history in an environment where they needn’t worry about being offended or raped, why shouldn’t they?”

There is something pathological in causally equating rape, as violent and invasive a crime as anyone can imagine, with an individual conducting a subjective assessment of their sensitivities and determining that they have been slighted. It is a logician of suspect ability who determines these two offenses to be of roughly approximate gravity.

This staunch defense of what a vocal minority of hypersensitive youth construe to be offensive suggests that Posner is engaged in a defense of his own preferred codes of conduct more so than he is upholding the values of his charges.

Which leads us to Posner’s second contradiction: The professor explicitly insisted that college-age young people “are children” and should be treated as such. “Not in terms of age, but in terms of maturity,” he condescended. “Even in college, they must be protected like children while being prepared to be adults.”

Now, who knows? Perhaps Posner’s pupils really aren’t ready to leave the nest. It’s not impossible, especially given the dominant impulse among America’s elites to file down life’s sharp edges, that the students in Posner’s classroom are ill-equipped to navigate the world around them. But no sooner does Posner assert that he is surrounded by children inhabiting the bodies of adults that he asserts that the process of mental if not physical maturation has grown stunted over the years.

“Society seems to be moving the age of majority from 18 to 21 or 22,” Posner insisted. “Perhaps over-programmed children engineered to the specifications of college admissions offices no longer experience the risks and challenges that breed maturity. Or maybe in our ever-more technologically advanced society, the responsibilities of adulthood must be delayed until the completion of a more extended period of education.”

Again, Posner is not entirely off base in his diagnosis of a social ill (though he doesn’t seem to consider it such). The process of maturation is decelerating over the generations, but his prescription for addressing this issue is to reinforce the conditions that he admits might have led to this lamentable state in the first place. If modern children are spared the “risks and challenges that breed maturity,” the solution to that problem is not to create hermetically sealed environments in which the perennially pubescent subject is cosseted in a cocoon of inoffensive ideological homogeneity. Posner laments the suboptimal state of affairs, but defends his role in perpetuating them.

If Posner is truly broken up about the vulnerability of the next generation, and it’s not at all clear that he is, than one might expect him to take his own advice and to stop treating young adults like infants. Not because they are ready for that challenge, but because they are not. Unless the graduating student chooses to continue his or her education, or ascends directly to a position with an anti-defamation league, no one in the world outside gives a whit about their fragile egos.

The best gift that a teacher can give a student is to disagree with them, even to regard their views as dangerous. If that sounds irresponsible, educators, trust a conservative with a post-graduate degree: It is not a rare occurrence. But the goal shouldn’t be to censor or shame them, but to make them defend their ideas for their peers. That adversity forces growth. It places demands on the individual to be compelling and comprehensive. The earlier a student learns that it is his or her job to please others and not to find themselves or to be comfortable with their own idiosyncrasies, the faster they will become productive and resilient members of society.

Posner doesn’t misdiagnose the problem with the class of 2019, but he does fail in the effort to proscribe the correct remedy. The cure for the problems associated with perpetual adolescence is not to create a safe space for that cancer to metastasize. It is incumbent on a well-trained surgeon, as it were, to excise the tumor.