I Respectfully Disagree

Am I the only one who disagrees with Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Dr. Everett Piper’s recent remarks that went viral? All I see is applause for his characterization of today’s college students as self-centered, narcissistic, victimized toddlers.

You’ve likely seen his remarks on social media recently. The headline read “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!”  It landed him on Fox News and caused an uproar of support from folks who were glad he took a stand agains the “whiny college student.”

Screen shot 2015-11-30 at 9.16.14 AMI don’t know Dr. Everett Piper. I don’t know anyone who has ever attended Oklahoma Wesleyan University. I’m sure if we sat down together he and I would find plenty of common ground. However, his overall sentiment made me bristle a little bit, having worked with young people for a decade and a half. It made me think some dissenting opinion might benefit the reading public.

Respectfully, here are the points where I’d push back:

It is easy to lob loose-fitting blame toward “our culture.” I’m not sure “our culture” taught kids to be self-absorbed and narcissistic as much as their parents have. We all come out of the womb pretty selfish, and it takes good parenting (and other wise influencers) to mature us beyond that ego-centrism.

Blaming culture is the easy way out. The heavy lifting is found in redeeming culture. Frankly, I think Dr. Piper would agree and, in some ways, is trying to change culture even by writing this letter. But he comes off a little grouchy and “get off my lawn”ish with his remarks. I think there’s a more redemptive method for his redemptive work.

(I will suggest such an alternative below.)

I also sense a little bit of a victim’s mentality in Dr. Piper’s own words. His letter is resplendent with exclamation points and quote marks and modifiers to make his feelings known more strongly. It’s ironic, because he comes across as a person who is sick and tired of it and not going to take it any more — sort of like the crowd he’s critiquing. The over-the-top comparison of a daycare seems a little hyperbolic. He makes his point, but almost too strongly. He comes dangerously close to sounding whiny for someone who is being critical of whiners.

To suggest that every college student who disagrees with their school’s administration — whether it’s a policy, a sermon (in his case), or the cafeteria food — is a baby for doing so is a bit over the top.

Everett-Speaking

(Photo Credit)

My largest disagreement is in the broad generalization made about emerging adults. Whiny young people may indeed exist, but let’s not pretend like it is only the 18-24 year olds making an unnecessarily large fuss about seemingly small things. It’s easy to point at the generation of which you are not a part and be critical, but there are plenty of middle-aged, “actual” grown-ups who are willing to share their dissenting opinion, too. To suggest that it’s just those darn “kids these days!” is a little short-sighted. Plus, I’m not even sure it’s true.

As someone who has worked with young people for now more than fifteen years, can I caution the “real adults” among us from jumping to broad conclusions about an entire demographic?

  • Could it be possible that the generation we’re calling narcissistic actually spends more time sticking up for other people than they do themselves?
  • Could it be that those selfish young adults are still maturing, and shouldn’t be lambasted publicly for, you know, navigating adolescence?
  • Could it be that they are simply acting and speaking in ways that have been modeled for them by the generation before them?

As I said, I agree with some of what Dr. Piper said. I think many of his words have been misconstrued and applied to situations for which they were not intended. Like all things that go viral, there’s plenty of misunderstanding being spread along with the actual content.

An Alternative

Lest this be viewed as simply another whiny blog post from someone who’s had his feelings hurt, I’d like to suggest a path forward for those who look at younger adults and find themselves attributing sissy status to the whole bunch:

  1. Practice Some Cross-Cultural Analysis: Like it or not, the generation that is emerging into adulthood was raised differently than ours. They have lived in a post-9/11 world where all they see is people shouting opinions at one another. They see the world as complex, corrupt, and in need of transformation. Recognize what makes them tick. Ask why they might speak up about things. Listen to them. Get to the heart of the issue. Don’t make assumptions.
  2. Come Alongside, Not Up Against. If I’ve learned anything in my work with students, it’s that they’ll respect you if you respect them. Some older leaders don’t like that system, but it’s how it works. If you are distant, authoritarian, condescending, or arrogant, you will not earn the respect of younger adults — ever. If you walk alongside them, listen to them, encourage them, and otherwise take an interest in them, you can say really hard things to them and instead of watching them rise to object you’ll see them rise to the challenge. I promise.
  3. Brace Yourself. I firmly believe there is a cultural shift taking place right beneath our feet. Not since the 1960s has the old way of thinking been so challenged by the new way. Is every cause noble? Probably not. Is every method pure in heart? Probably not. But times they-are-a-changing. Instead of fearing the emerging adults, embrace them. Get to know one. You may find they aren’t as self-serving, sensitive, and thin-skinned as you once thought.

So I agree, universities are not day care centers. But we’d do well to allow that to inform our strategy as leaders. Instead of scolding students like toddlers, let’s lead them like the adults we want them to become.

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