The ideal thing, of course, would be for our own students to ‘man up’. Alas, even those words are enough to lead to all sorts of feminist weeping and wailing in the halls of academe. And that tells its own story
As anyone who has read a newspaper in the past few months will know, this planet boasts two kinds of snowflakes.
One is an exquisite natural wonder, formed from a single tiny crystal, which falls through the sky, attracting cloud droplets which accumulate in dazzling patterns of ice.
The other is rather less of a wonder. Formed from a single tiny brain cell, it wafts through the British university system in a cloud of victimhood, attracting similarly strident comrades who accumulate in student unions and spaces where they are safe from criticism and hurtful ideas.
You may think I am being harsh. Indeed, when I first read the headlines about the so-called ‘snowflake generation’ — a generation of students intolerant of dissent, who melt when forced to confront tricky challenges, suffused with a sense of their own entitlement — I wondered if they had been exaggerated.
As a former lecturer myself, I knew things in our universities were bad — but surely they weren’t that bad?
But recently, I read two stories about my own alma mater, Oxford, which confirmed all my worst fears.
The first concerns a former law student at Jesus College, Catherine Dance, who is suing the university for loss of earnings.
She claims that because the college refused to give her special treatment for her chronic anxiety — for example, she wanted to sit her exams in a private room with a laptop — she had to take a break from her degree, and therefore graduated a year late and missed out on a year’s wages.
The second concerns one Sophie Spector, a former student of politics, philosophy and economics at my old college, Balliol.
Miss Spector thought the college should give her special treatment, including extended deadlines, because she suffered from anxiety and depression, and was, in her own words, ‘a really slow reader’.
But the college refused, she fell behind and eventually she left.
The details are different, but the story is basically the same. Indeed, if you talk to anybody who works in British universities, it is a very familiar tale.
Of course, many students are relatively sane and sensible people. Thanks to the economic pressures of the modern world, the majority are also probably some of the hardest-working in history.
Indeed, last week’s A-level results mean that at least 416,000 new students will be enrolling for university courses.
All the same, there is simply no denying that there now exists a pernicious culture of narcissism and self-obsession at our universities.
This began among a tiny group of Left-wing student activists — the apostles of ‘safe spaces’ (where people are protected from ideas that make them uncomfortable) and ‘no-platforming’ (when students proscribe, or refuse to give a platform to, speakers they disagree with).
But it is now seeping into mainstream national life.
Inside the classroom it is bad enough. One academic friend recently told me about a student who objected to receiving any criticism at all, no matter how well-intentioned or gently put.
The student simply believed that if she delivered her essays on time, she was entitled to get a First.
This, too, is a very common story. Having been raised to think they are special, garlanded with praise and showered with A-grades as teenagers, students have come to believe they are entitled to success, whether they deserve it or not. If they fail, it is the university’s fault — never theirs.
It is outside the classroom, though, that the new student narcissism is most poisonous.
Just think, for example, of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which sought to tear down a little statue of the Victorian empire-builder and Oxford donor Cecil Rhodes.
Since the statute was high above a busy road, where virtually nobody ever saw it, the activists could hardly claim that it made any difference to the people of Oxford.
But they didn’t care about the people of Oxford. They only cared about themselves.
In their own words, they felt ‘oppressed and marginalised’ by the statue, even though they had to go out of their way just to glimpse it. Merely walking down the street, in one of the most privileged educational institutions in the world, was apparently enough to reduce them to tears.
Sophie Spector, pictured, thought her college at the University of Oxford should give her special treatment, including extended deadlines, because she suffered from anxiety and depression, and was, in her own words, ‘a really slow reader’
If that sounds ridiculous, there is much worse where it came from. It is at Oxford, for example, that the university’s Equality and Diversity Unit advised students that if they avoided eye contact with each other, they might be in danger of committing ‘racist micro-aggressions’.
In fact, there are so many examples of the cult of victimhood that I could probably fill every page in this newspaper, from the students at Pembroke College, Cambridge, who complained that dishes such as ‘Jamaican Stew’ and ‘Tunisian Rice’ were yet more ‘racist micro-aggressions’, to the National Union of Students, which has tried to ban clapping and cheering because they could ‘trigger anxiety’ among sensitive students.
All this talk of ‘triggering’ will probably baffle most readers over the age of 25. But it has become one of the favourite words of the student snowflakes, who are so frightened of being offended that they require ‘trigger warnings’ before having to deal with even the tamest material.
Like many very bad ideas, it has been imported from U.S. universities, where students have requested warnings before being exposed to such supposedly offensive books as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (because of characters’ violence to women) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (in which a character commits suicide).
Even Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice is apparently too much for some students, who cannot handle his anti-Semitic portrait of the Jewish moneylender Shylock. And as for teaching Joseph Conrad’s great novella The Nigger Of The ‘Narcissus’, you can forget it.
You might have thought that the whole point of university is to challenge conventional wisdom and stretch students’ minds — but according to today’s student Left, you would be wrong.
The point of university, they say, is to provide a ‘safe space’, where sensitive little flowers can shelter from the horrors of the real world. Of course, students have always been idealistic to the point of extremism. Just think, for example, of those who campaigned against the Vietnam War in the late-Sixties.
As older readers will recall, the campaign reached its peak in the Grosvenor Square demonstration of 1968, when some 10,000 people battled hundreds of mounted London policemen.
But that merely set the stage for a wave of strikes and sit-ins in the late-Sixties and early Seventies, many of which came perilously close to self-parody.
To give just one colourful example, the University of Essex, which had been built in the Sixties in the fashion of an East German power station, was plagued by student unrest.
The low point was a so-called ‘revolutionary festival’, at which, according to one observer, ‘a car was set on fire and a student and a mathematics professor struggled over possession of a hosepipe’.
For all their ludicrousness, though, the protests of the Sixties and Seventies were motivated by genuine concern about the state of the world.
It is true that sometimes students were protesting about parochial concerns such as exams and regulations.
But there was also a real passion about major international issues, from the wars in Vietnam and Biafra (which tried to secede from Nigeria) to the apartheid regime in white-dominated South Africa.
It was much the same story in the Eighties. Then, too, universities often fizzed with political enthusiasm.
Students joined campaigns calling for Nelson Mandela’s release; they argued about the bloodshed in Northern Ireland; they donated time and money to help the striking miners; they demonstrated against Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.
Whatever you think of their goals, all these campaigns were motivated by genuine idealism, however naive.
And all were devoted to something far beyond the students’ immediate horizons, from the future of Britain’s coalmines to the plight of millions of black South Africans.
Today’s student activists, however, are very different.
While their predecessors wrung their hands about the plight of others, modern students shed tears of self-pity. And although we live in a more globalised age than ever, our students’ horizons have never been narrower.
The students of the Sixties never saw themselves as victims.
Quite the reverse, in fact: they knew they were privileged, often felt guilty about it, and were fired with an idealistic determination to help others less fortunate than themselves.
But today’s students, despite their predominantly middle-class backgrounds, have been encouraged to see themselves as the suffering casualties of a cruel world.
Instead of recognising their own privilege, they see themselves as victims of oppression, which is why so many of them flocked to Jeremy Corbyn, who shamelessly panders to their sense of entitlement.
They see no shame in asking for special treatment; indeed, as any academic will tell you, today’s students can hardly wait to proclaim themselves uniquely hard done by, and to demand compensation for their educational handicaps and mental disabilities, whether real or imagined.
As the U.S. psychologist Sean Rife puts it, in a society where ‘victimhood has become the ultimate status symbol . . . the notion of quietly bearing one’s trials has become passe’.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is a deranged furore at Yale, one of the most prestigious universities in the U. S., where student activists complained that professors were not treating their fears about potentially offensive Halloween costumes seriously enough. (Yes, really.) You can see the clip on YouTube, and it makes for truly extraordinary viewing.
Surrounded by activists, a professor begs them to consider their common humanity and to listen to contrary opinions. At that, one of the students, apparently in tears, shrieks: ‘But we’re dying!’
As Professor Rife writes, it is barely believable that a student at one of the world’s top universities could consider herself oppressed, let alone that she could claim to be ‘dying’.
In his words, ‘the idea that a simple email about Halloween costumes could constitute an existential threat is nothing short of delusional.’
Alas, the delusion is spreading.
Take the students at the University of East Anglia who took offence at what they saw as ‘cultural appropriation’ — or the act of using things from another culture — because a local Mexican restaurant handed out Sombreros.
Or the student activists at Sussex, who asked their fellows to stop using the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ because they make ‘assumptions about identity’.
A collective mania seems to have seized Britain’s campuses.
What makes this so toxic is that campuses often set the tone for mainstream society, since it is our universities that produce the leaders of the future.
You can bet the youthful prigs and censors of today will be the Labour MPs and BBC executives of tomorrow, endlessly hectoring the rest of us about the importance of safe spaces and making sure that every prime-time TV show has a transgender character.
The irony, of course, is that there are lots of good causes that students could be marching about.
They could be protesting about environmental damage in the Amazon, jihadi violence in Syria, the treatment of refugees in Eastern Europe, the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, genocide in Yemen, the death of democracy in Venezuela, the nuclear threat in North Korea — the list goes on.
But no. The precious little flowers much prefer talking about themselves and the terrible hardships they have had to endure.
Revealingly, however, there is one group of students who never get involved in this sort of thing.
These are the thousands of youngsters who have come to study in Britain from much poorer, less privileged countries than our own.
Many of them might well be tempted to see themselves as victims, since they often come from battle-scarred, war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq. But they almost never do.
Precisely because they are so conscious of their good fortune, they usually work extremely hard, putting their British colleagues to shame.
So while our own students are shouting about micro-aggressions and trigger warnings, and wallowing in their supposed oppression by their callously unfeeling tutors, their foreign counterparts are quietly working in the library, getting the qualifications they need to lift themselves out of poverty and lead their countries towards prosperity.
The ideal thing, of course, would be for our own students to ‘man up’. Alas, even those words are enough to lead to all sorts of feminist weeping and wailing in the halls of academe.
And that, of course, tells its own story.