david kerr H&S

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It was one was one of the those breaking points.  Another commentator talking about how young people, “snowflakes” as this particular loudmouth called them, couldn’t stand up to the real world.  Ok, guys, enough is enough. I know who you’re talking about and you’ve got it all wrong.  

Usually, those using the term are talking about people under age 25.  They subscribe to the narrative that these young people were so coddled and so protected when they were children that when faced with the real world they melt under the pressure.  According to this line of thinking, it’s all the fault of their helicopter parents and a world that gave too many participation awards. Perhaps some of that’s true — I remember helicopter parents from when I was on the school board, but if direct evidence is any gauge, namely my students, I don’t buy it.  It’s an annoying term and not even remotely accurate.

I teach government and politics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. It’s something I really enjoy doing. My classes usually average about 50 students, and during the semester I get to know them pretty well. They come from all over the world — that’s the nature of VCU — but a lot of them are from Virginia, with quite a few from Northern Virginia to include Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William. They’re our kids and you know what, they’re not snowflakes. But if you insist on using the term, let me assure you, they don’t melt.

Sure, the label came about because some colleges and universities took things a step too far.  By creating so-called safe spaces and by limiting what should be healthy debate. Oh, yes, and coining the term “micro-aggression.” But that sort of thing is a rarity.  Mostly, these references are nothing more than fodder for the TV talking heads on Fox.

So, who are they? These so-called snowflakes.  First of all, they’re young. My oldest student this semester was 26. He had served four years in the Army, made sergeant and had served in combat in Afghanistan. I wouldn’t recommend you call him a “snowflake” to his face. I have also had firefighters and police officers in class, not a classic snowflake material, and one prison detention officer. 

However, contrary to this view of protected snowflakes, a number of the kids work — including many of the full-time students.  A full class load, then maybe 20 or more hours a week at work. They’re not exactly coddled, are they? As for being intimidated by other people’s opinions and needing special protection, I don’t think so.  When we have some open discussions in class, they don’t seem to mind running up against someone with another point of view. Again, not snowflake behavior.

This supposedly coddled class of students faces one other burden that many of those taking verbal pot shots at them didn’t have to worry about in their day.  Debt. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, students graduated with debt, but it wasn’t that common, and the amounts were manageable. Today, some of my students will graduate owing as much as I did on my first house.

Of course, the majority are still relatively young.  Last year, I had a 17-year-old in class along with a number of freshmen who weren’t much older. They’re like freshman in any university, not particularly wise to the ways of the world and a little immature.  Still, most work hard, seem to expect no special treatment and are desperately worried about midterms, reading assignments, papers, presentations and how in the heck they’re going to get it all done in one semester.  In other words, the typical college experience. But I have seen no evidence that they want to be treated differently.

Next year I am hoping to teach two classes.  As is usually the case, I am sure to get some lazy students, some confused students and maybe a few who shouldn't be in college at all, but I doubt I will get any snowflakes.  They may need advice and guidance, but as for any special handling, probably not. Perhaps that’s because the term snowflake was a made-up word in the first place. I like this upcoming generation.  They’re lively, techy, have a social conscience, are creative and most of all are willing to work for what they get. Personally, I think some of the pundits are just a little scared of them. As for me, I am looking forward to the day when they get a chance to run things, but before they do that, they have to pass my class.

David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.


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