Life Sucks. College Should, Too.

Want to get a conservative intellectual hoppin mad? Tell them (yes, I can use the plural to refer to just one person now) that college students have a right to complain.

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College protesters get no respect…

A recent comment about the harshness of real life by a new Haverford student has a few conservative commenters cheering. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I’m no conservative myself. But I wonder if erudite pundits such as R.R. Reno and Rod Dreher really want to start down the anti-intellectual path they seem to be taking.

In the pages of the social platform Odyssey, Haverford student Olivia Legaspi explains that working at McDonald’s taught her more about life than did her elite college sensitivity seminars. As she put it,

I have PTSD — because of this, the environment at work was anxiety-producing much of the time. Yet there was no “trigger warning” for when a customer was about to start yelling, when the restaurant would get so busy that I had no time to breathe between orders and the noise would make me feel faint, when a group of men in the drive-thru would whistle and catcall me as they pulled away. The sexual harassment I experienced there is another story entirely — the point is, at work, my mental illness and I were irrelevant. And from that, I grew; I learned to take care of myself in ways that didn’t inconvenience anyone, draw unnecessary attention to myself, or interfere with the structures in place and the work which had to be done. McDonald’s was not a “safe space” for me, and that was how it should be; I was a small part of a big picture, and my feelings had no business influencing said big picture.

At First Things and The American Conservative, respectively, R.R. Reno and Rod Dreher cheer Legaspi’s real-world education. McDonald’s, Dreher cheers, taught her the value of “hard work and humility.” Her essay, Reno notes, shows that excessive college “luxury isn’t helpful.”

I can’t believe they really mean it. And, to be fair, Reno explicitly points out that the goal of college should be to create “communities of care that uplift rather than run down.” However, to say that college students should not be complaining about unsafe spaces because the real world is not safe misses the point entirely.

This is the same tired anti-intellectual argument that we’ve seen for generations. Why study Plato, or postmodernism, or piano, when such things are not valued in the real world?  I don’t believe thoughtful commentators really hope to diminish the value of non-real-world higher education.

What should we do instead? All of us—progressive, conservative, and either/or—should be celebrating the fact that a few college students are a little over-eager in their moral activism. We don’t want to castigate schools for helping create a safe space. Rather, we should be encouraging students to take their campus activism out to the streets and the fast-food counters.

Legaspi points out that her McDonald’s manager would have simply fired her if she tried to complain about working conditions. To her mind—and to Reno’s and Dreher’s—that real-world lesson was worth more than any sensitivity-raising workshop at Haverford. But they seem to come to the morally opposite conclusion. Instead of pushing Haverford to loosen up and get more like McDonald’s, we should all be figuring out ways to make McDonald’s more like Haverford.

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