Students get a terrible lot of shit these days. There are all the usual kinds, and then there is the special new kind called “Students are Sheltered Bunny Rabbits/Universities are Becoming an Ever More Commodious Hutch”. Many articles are written, usually about American students at very, very expensive liberal arts colleges. The focus is most frequently on an extremely privileged young person, usually a white woman, hell-bent on doing something or saying something or feeling something that the writer of the article believes to be foolish/coddled/hysterical. There is a lot of sneering about Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings. Say “trigger warning” to a certain type of person, and you will soon see them clawing at their faces with fury and despair. You will see them get so angry that they will climb up their own bookshelves like a spider. They will sit on the top and scream that trigger warnings are not real, or else they are All Too Real. Either way, you have a person climbing like a spider up a bookshelf because an article made them cross.
(Here are two classics of the genre: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/; http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/01/not-a-very-pc-thing-to-say.html.)
I love reading these articles. I average about one and a half a day. There is no shortage of these pieces, because there is apparently no end to the way this sort of behaviour gets on people’s nerves. I do not get mad. It is truly no skin off my nose if a 19 year old girl who I do not know, attending a college that I have never heard of, organises a safe space where there are bean bags and colouring books and pictures of puppies. I wish her all the best.
I love reading these articles, mostly, because they describe a situation that is entirely exotic to me. I have been tutoring and teaching seminars at a university for four years, now, and I have never even once encountered anything like what these articles describe. Not once. I have had students get upset, in classes, or say that they found something disturbing, but that’s it. South African students, in my experience, are almost unhealthily robust. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but, as far as I can see, it is a thing. South African students don’t wilt. They tell each other to fuck off, and they roll their eyes. They are generally not the kinds of people with problems that are going to be solved by a picture of a puppy or a colouring book.
It’s strange, then, and embarrassing, to see how often people on social media share articles about American Sheltered Bunny Rabbits as if they apply to the South African context in any way. I see it so, so often: someone will post an article called something like “The Infantilisation of the American Mind”, and put a comment at the top that says like “scary to see what is happening to our universities” or like “sad…” To be clear, these are South Africans posting these things, and they are talking about South African universities. This is maybe just a symptom of someone who spends so much time on the internet that they actually believe they are living in America. They think UCT is Yale. They think Wits is NYU. To be clear, I find that very weird.
South African students are not little babies who need toughening up. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that South Africans, as a people, do not need toughening up. I would venture further out onto that same branch and say that it would be actively bad if we got any tougher. We are as hard as nails already.