Students who are offered Play Doh and “therapy horses” to help them make it through university will be cannon fodder in an unforgiving, competitive global labour market
At this point we are used to seeing outrageous stories of overbearing, coddling universities going to extraordinary lengths to teach the young adults studying on their campuses like delicate, helpless infants.
But the Chicago Tribune has done quite a job in summarising all of the instances of infantilisation-posing-as-stress-management taking place at institutions in and around the city. And the extent of the trend is quite shocking to behold.
Sephanie Delgado can feel the stress of her to-do list as she works to finish the semester at Roosevelt University: three essays, a presentation and exams.
To escape the pressure, the 20-year-old college junior, who also works as a restaurant cashier to help pay for school, sculpted a chunk of blue Play-Doh into Popplio, a Pokemon character. She was at a table next to other students who colored and decorated cookies before two miniature therapy horses wearing sneakers trotted into the room Wednesday for the university’s De-Stress Fest.
“I know I still have to do all that work, but coming here I’m able to take some time off to hang out with friends, have fun and empty my mind for a little bit,” said Delgado, who lives on the Southwest Side. “It’s like a refresh. My mind is nice and clear so when I go to start my homework, I’m well focused.”
As the semester nears its end — and students pull all-nighters to cram for exams, type papers and finish projects that weigh heavily on final grades — colleges in the Chicago area are taking steps to help students manage stress. It’s part of a broader approach to focus on students’ mental health and expand proactive outreach efforts instead of waiting for students to seek help. Local schools this week are offering activities ranging from animal visits at Roosevelt to a bubble-wrapped room at the University of Illinois at Chicago to the long-standing tradition of a stress-busting primal scream at Northwestern University.
At Northwestern, “because of the hectic academic pace that exists here, it is stressful and very pressure-packed,” university spokesman Alan Cubbage said.
Students can blow off steam with a visit from miniature horses Friday and release their frustration through a campuswide scream, in which students let out a collective yell at 9 p.m. Sunday before finals week. Next week, a number of activities such as Lego building, board games, midnight coffee breaks and late-night breakfast are planned for exam relief.
The series of events UIC hosts during finals week helps junior Liz Huss manage stress in a healthful way.
Students got a visit from comfort dogs Wednesday and are invited next week to pop bubble wrap at the student center, get chair massages, do candlelight yoga and leave notes of encouragement for fellow students.
“I like to take 10, 15, 20 minutes to rejuvenate, reflect and relax, and these events really help with that,” said Huss, an accounting major.
I’m sure that the large professional services firm that she may one day seek to join will be more than happy to bend over backwards to accommodate Liz Huss’s artificially-instilled need to reach for the soothing presence of a “comfort dog” whenever the going gets tough.
For Andersonville resident Rob Chesler, a junior at Roosevelt, stress can motivate him to get his work done. But he also welcomed the distraction of the De-Stress Fest, during which he took a selfie with Lunar, the oldest miniature horse from the Barrington-based nonprofit Mane in Heaven.
“If you’re living in this world of hard work every second of every hour of your life, then you’re not going to be happy and you’re just going to be all about work,” he said. “If you have little horses every now and then, you have moments where you can just breathe and enjoy life.”
Little horses for everyone!
Fortunately there are also voices of sanity:
Clay Routledge, psychology professor at North Dakota State University, believes universities should be promoting psychological strength and resilience, not coddling students.
“I’m not ignorant to the fact there are vulnerable students that need services,” he said. “I’m not against that at all. My criticism is: Are we promoting more broadly a culture of sensitivity and victimhood than we need to do?”
Many colleges and universities are becoming more than educational institutions and overreaching by not letting students figure things out on their own, he said.
“We need to promote toughness and strength, and we know from decades of research that humans are extremely resilient,” Routledge said. “You have to have real stressors in life. You have to fail. You have to be embarrassed and you have to face situations where you’re wrong and you’re challenged — and you’ll be strong as a result.”
A rare voice arguing for building resilience the way that university has done for decades, if not centuries – focusing on the academia, not seeking to micromanage every moment of each student’s pastoral experience on campus, and letting them grow through trial, error and experience. Expect Professor Clay Routledge to be blacklisted by the social justice / identity politics cultists at his university and drummed out of his job any day now.
I have always found American universities to be slightly odd places. Having spent a reasonable amount of time on various campuses in the Mid-West, I have always been struck by the way that universities do not treat their students like autonomous adults to the extent that one might expect in Britain.
Despite eye-wateringly high tuition and accommodation costs, undergraduates are usually expected to share a small room with a roommate, at least in their first year, an almost unheard-of indignity for British students (who would probably feel the same way about this as Americans would feel about staying in one of the NHS’s communal hospital wards rather than having a private room of their own). American universities often see fit to correspond with the parents of students as though they are still school children rather than adults over the age of eighteen, old enough to wear the uniform and fight for their country (though not old enough to drink). These, and many other odd customs, long predate the social justice and identity politics craze which has infected Western academia.
But while customs and practices such as these treat students as though they are not quite yet fully-grown adults, the new trend for safe spaces and infantilising activities masquerading as “stress relief” are of a different order because they effectively serve to stunt any further emotional growth, making it harder for students to ever become autonomous, successful adults.
Making an eighteen-year-old incurring $60,000 of annual student debt sleep three yards away from a roommate is one thing. Treating students as though they are fragile and unresilient children who need bubble wrap, puppy videos and therapy horses to make it through the academic year effectively becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, ensuring that they enter the world utterly unprepared to function in a society and labour market which does not put their feelings and emotional health on a pedestal.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt joked about this when he compared two fictional universities – Strengthen University and Coddle University – in a lecture / college recruitment pitch given to high school seniors. But more and more, Haidt’s send-up of Coddle University is coming to pass and being made real on campuses across America, and in Britain too:
We are based on a very simple psychology which is that people are fragile. People are so easily hurt. Anything that upsets you could trigger trauma, repressed trauma, unrepressed trauma, trauma that you somehow put up there in the closet and forgot to take – there’s trauma all over your mind and your memory. And we don’t want to trigger your trauma. That could damage you.
And this is especially true for members of the six protected classes [women, African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ, differently abled, and Native Americans]. If you are a member of one of the six marginalised and oppressed groups you are especially vulnerable. You’ve been traumatised and oppressed your whole lives. Microaggression theory teaches us that when people repeatedly cut these little nicks, these little insults, these little exclusions, they don’t develop calluses, they bleed to death. And so we will not let you be cut while you are at Coddle. We will protect you. Now don’t try to do it yourself, that’s very dangerous. WE will protect YOU from aggression.
At Coddle University we offer access to therapists 24/7. Just dial 811 from any phone, or we have this new feature – just raise three fingers, go like this [he gestures] and we have sensors all around campus, go like this and a therapist will be airlifted right into you.
University is supposed to be stressful. Balancing the academic workload and social events and newfound freedom away from the family home is supposed to develop key skills required to navigate the world as an independent adult later in life. Shipping in a bunch of therapy horses onto campus is not “offer[ing] students opportunities to learn self-care”, as one University of Missouri jobsworth claims, because it simulates an environment which will not exist outside of the university campus.
There are no therapy horses laid on for employees in the average workplace. Teaching students to survive daily stress by reaching for Play Doh and therapy animals is like training an astronaut to undertake spacewalks while failing to simulate the essential conditions of weightlessness and limited oxygen supply, and every bit as likely to lead to disaster.
But still the universities teach this nonsense and lay on these extravagant, infantilising services, unaware or unconcerned that they are setting their students up for failure the moment they set foot off campus.
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