My English literature professor came to dinner at our house last week. I took his class a mere 38 years ago, when I was a college sophomore. We’ve remained friends.
He told me a story. “I went to a dinner with some students last month. I asked one young woman what her parents did. Innocent question, right? Wrong.”
He continued: “That night, I got an email from her. She said it was insensitive of me to ask about her parents, because her father wasn’t part of her life anymore and reminding her of him just retriggered her pain. She said I should have known better than to ask. I’d never met her before in my life.”
“That’s the last time I go to dinner with students,” he said, looking aggrieved. “It’s just not worth it.”
What’s wrong with this story? Everything.
College-educated young people may (or may not) be book-smart, but when it comes to human relations, many of them are dumber than rocks. They’ve created a world in which you can barely speak because anything you say is going to be deemed offensive by somebody.
These poor darlings are so touchy and easily offended that you wonder how they’ll do when they’re no longer living under Mommy and Daddy’s roof. Or in this case, Mommy’s.
But it’s not just the students. The universities themselves are encouraging touchiness and oversensitivity, triggered in part by the helicoptering parenting mentality of the past decade or so.
According to a recent report, Penn State is running “a massive campaign that encourages students not only to watch what they say, lest they offend someone, but also to report any and all biased statements to campus officials.” That’s typical of college campuses today.
How do you make a living in an abrasive world if you think that no one has the right to offend you? How do you expect to survive if you can’t conduct an adult conversation? How do you expect to have a relationship or, God forbid, a marriage, if you’ve got 30,000 rules about what people can or cannot say?
It’s beyond political correctness, which was bad enough. It’s humorlessness. It’s a willingness not just to take offense but to seek it out, even if it doesn’t exist.
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If the student in question had any guts, she would have said, “Look, Professor. I’m offended when people ask about my parents.” Then she would have explained why.
Actually, if she’d had any manners, she could have said, “Look, Professor. My Dad isn’t part of the picture. It’s hard for me to talk about home.” Or she could have given a diplomatic reply and nudged the conversation in a more comfortable direction.
But no. She had to wait until she could display the “courage of the keyboard” — and write a hurtful email to a perfectly nice professor who was simply displaying a friendly interest in other people.
The problem is that this story isn’t an isolated incident. It’s the story of a generation. Grow up with a screen in your face, you rarely learn how to look people in the eye. Buy into a youth culture devoid of free speech, you create a world where everything’s offensive.
My four kids are taking their cues from a culture that encourages taking affront and finding offense even where it doesn’t exist. Do I really want to spend a million bucks on tuition so that they can be influenced so negatively?
I’m going to quote from a book called “A Day At A Time in Al-Anon,” a life manual for people who have real problems — not just rules for what people can and cannot say when they’re just being friendly. There’s a line in that book about “the lovely adventure of shrugging off hurts.”
Your father’s not in your life? OK. That’s a problem. Deal with it. Step into the nearest children’s hospital, or bankruptcy court, or shelter for battered women, and behold actual problems.
When I visited my college last fall, there were signs posted by the dining hall: “The way you look at me makes me uncomfortable.”
Oh my goodness. You don’t even know me. Hey, your sign makes me uncomfortable!
You can’t have all of life on your own terms. No wonder young people feel so isolated today. They’ve imprisoned themselves because they don’t know how to connect. Solitary confinement is a crummy life sentence. Especially when it’s self-imposed.
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Twelve-time national bestseller Michael Levin runs Business Ghost, America’s leading provider of ghostwritten memoirs and business books.