I am in my sixties. Naturally, talk of younger generations being not a patch on my own brings a nice warm feeling to me in my declining years. But my genuine fondness for justice forces me to admit that the current vogue for writing off a whole generation as being “snowflake” is simply preposterous.
The term was coined to describe undergraduates and students who insist that only people with politically correct views should be allowed to teach them or to speak at meetings held in their universities. It is said that permitting those, for instance, who think the state of Israel is not evil, or those who say Mrs Thatcher was not the devil incarnate, to express their opinions to sensitive undergraduates could cause awful long-term mental ill-health. And requiring theology students to look at great paintings depicting the crucifixion of Christ is cruelty on a scale which has never before been imagined. Undergraduates must be permitted “safe places” where they will never run the risk of hearing any view with which they disagree, or of seeing anything so disturbing as portrayals of martyrdom.
Of course, all this is deplorable, quite indefensible. But I simply do not go along with the general assumption that it means the current generation of undergraduates is made up entirely of hopeless weeds, of “snowflakes”.
The first, and most obvious, point to make is that the undergraduate activists who so vociferously oppose free speech are plainly in a tiny minority. They do not represent the views of most undergraduates. The very fact that they are political activists marks them out from the vast majority of other undergraduates. That has always been the case. Earlier generations of undergraduates preferred drink and sex (possibly even soft drugs) to politics. This generation (a generalisation but a fair one) prefers hard work.
But there is another point. The tiny minority of politically active undergraduates who seek to stifle free speech on the spurious ground that their fellow undergraduates may suffer nervous breakdowns if they ever have to listen to “incorrect” opinions, is definitely not made up of weeds. The noisy agitators are quite prepared to fight long and hard to get their way. You will not find them cowering at home whenever they meet opposition. They are not cowards. If there are barricades to be manned, they will man them. They don’t really think that other young people are now too weedy to be confronted with, to them, new ideas. What motivates them in their desire to see that only one opinion should ever be permitted is their desperate fear that their fellow undergraduates might be persuaded that the “correct” opinion may not be the right one.
I must remember I am in my sixties. Surely, I can think of some other way of damning the current generation of undergraduates.
Actually, it is not that easy. But I will try. I don’t think I am going too far in suggesting that most undergraduates, these days, are horribly earnest. They do seem to have discarded the conventional idea that the point of going to the university is to have a good time for three years before having to cope with the boredom of real life. Many of them, not just political activists, get frightfully cross if they think there are not enough lectures and tutorials to attend. They point out, with some justification, that they, through student loans, are paying for their education. They are customers, and they are entitled to the best possible service.
It is not just about student loans. They know that the professions and many employers now insist on good degrees. Having a good time at the university may lead to a poor degree and no possibility of a good job. Hard work is now very important.
And they are working hard. This week we were told that 25% of degrees are now first class. Some, inevitably, will claim that that means there has been dumbing down, that a first class degree in the 21st century is nothing like a first class degree in the twentieth century. But that is nonsense. There is simply no evidence to support the theory that it is easier to get a first class degree now than it was a few decades ago. The difference between now and then is that undergraduates tend, now, to work much harder than they used to.
Oh dear, I am not doing very well in my attempt to portray current undergraduates as being a pale imitation of their predecessors. Could it possibly be because they are not? What an awful thought.