When I started college at UCLA in 1977, I wasn’t ready to focus and get serious. I worred more about basketball than grades, and it showed on my transcript. Two years in and I had a few Ds, a few more Cs, and no major. In one class, “The Detective Story,” I didn’t bother to turn in the final paper even when the teacher gave me extra time. I don’t know why, I just didn’t. It would take me another three years and three summer sessions to graduate.
But all the times I blew off a test and fooled around instead of studying didn’t ruin me. I enrolled in graduate school right away, staying at UCLA whose English department ranked among the top public universities. In my final two years I had raised my grades and read widely enough to earn a high score on the GRE Literature exam. Apparently, the admissions committee ignored my early years. As I remember it now, the whole process looks to have been highly forgiving.
The system doesn’t work that way anymore. Admissions to graduate school are more competitive and they are more data driven. According to a recent study of graduate admissions by University of Michigan education professor Julia Posselt, committees rely on numbers (GPA and GRE) and they are risk-averse. They set a minimum and cut those applicants who don’t meet it. Once they have narrowed the pool to a manageable number of decent prospects, they can afford to look at individual differences and personal factors. But before that, it’s a numbers game—which means that one base semester or one bad exam in sophomore year can jeopardize an applicant’s future.
Committee members can afford to be so rigid in the first and second cuts because of the changes that have happened since my era. A lot more undergrads intend to go to graduate school than they did before. In 1981, a bit above three-fifths (62.8%) of first-year students aimed to pursue a post-baccalaureate degree (MA, M.D., Ph.D. . .). Now, the rate exceeds three-fourths (77.6%). If the absolute numbers of undergraduates hadn’t changed, that jump may not look so large. But the four-year college population has swelled from 10.7 million in 1981 to today’s 17.5 million, making that 15 percent jump much bigger than it seems. Added to that, the number of selective programs hasn’t grown much. This tells undergraduates shooting for Penn medical school and Stanford business that they better fly high from the moment of matriculation onward.
It makes for an unforgiving world, at least in the eyes of ambitious 19-year-olds. We older folks walk the grounds at Boulder and Morningside Heights and utopian musings spring up. We think the students there have it made. At Emory they enjoy wonderful facilities, small classes, and technology everywhere. If they work hard and stay out of trouble, nice paychecks will follow.
But sophomores don’t see majestic halls and exquisite greenery, though. They don’t regard themselves as one of the future elite. They know they must pass through a pipeline of tests and papers, courses and applications, internships and letters of recommendation, before they can join it. The pipe is smaller than the amount of water trying to pass through it. They look around the campus and sense risk and defeat. They can’t afford a B- at any time in any class. Every high-achiever gets most A grades—43 percent of all grades fall in the A range–and so a slip-up on one final exam seems a catastrophe.
I’ve seen that fear up close. One night last year, I found myself watching a profile of comedian Rodney Dangerfield on the Web. At one moment, I laughed out loud at his answer to the interviewer’s query about his favorite comics at the present time: “I hate ‘em all – they’re competitors!”
The next morning, impatient with my class for not doing the day’s reading, I recalled his comment and slipped into the role of grouchy uncle. “Listen, you all,” I barked, snapping the book shut, “I know life is good here at Emory Country Club, but it’s a tough world out there and you’re all ambitious, and you may not do the work but others will, so remember one thing as you look hang out together – go ahead, look at each other, right now, and realize this: ‘You are not my friends, you are my competitors.’”
They didn’t laugh. I expected some eye rolls or exasperated breaths or snickers. But all they did was go blank. No smiles or frowns, and no eye contact. It was as if a cold reality that they couldn’t discuss or dispel had drifted into the room, and the best thing for them to do was to shut down until it went away. Right there, I understood another meaning of safe space.
The term has become one of ridicule. Insecure students and their faculty supporters take it straight and use safe spaces as a weapon of complaint. But everyone else treats it as a joke, the plea of infants. But when we add competition to the etiology, it safe spaces make a bit more sense—though it is still a distorted demand. Competition is, indeed, the context missing from the commentary in magazines, newspapers, and TV on the campus agitations of 2015-16. Trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, safe spaces, disinvitations . . . they are said to be the tactics of “snowflakes” and “crybullies.” They reveal a pathology, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued in their much discussed essay, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Bill Maher’s judgment was blunt: “Who raised these little monsters?” Haidt and Lukianoff outlined the “distorted thinking” that led to hypersensitive behavior, such as the distress caused at Emory by the sight of “TRUMP 2016” chalkings on walkways. They included in the list of causes for this “safety” condition:
- Overprotective parenting
- Social media that ramp up indignation
- Increasing political polarization
- Federal antidiscrimination policies that emphasize feelings of offense
Those sound right to me, but at selective schools we need to remember the competition factor. Several scenes have become touchstones in this Era of Safe Spaces, the student journalist threatened at Missouri (“I need some muscle over here!”) and the Yale student shrieking at the professor (filmed by Lukianoff himself). We should add another one.
These are idiotic episodes, yes, but they couldn’t have happened if there weren’t another source of anxiety than students generally felt was valid. Racism doesn’t serve—too many young people regard the allegations of black students as highly exaggerated. The same goes for charges of “rape culture.” But what student (and professor and administrator, too) hasn’t felt the pressure of competition?
Imagine yourself, then, a new student at a Tier 1 institution. You were one of the best in your high school, with lots of AP courses and extra-curriculars, plus a 90th-percentile SAT score. All your life you’ve been one of the very best. Teachers knew you well, and your admission to Elite U gratified your high school principal. You’ve come to college with high aspirations, declaring pre-med major (as do one-fifth of your fellow freshmen). In your first year, you have to take Organic Chemistry and Physics.
But things aren’t going well. In high school you stood out. Here, you’re one of 100, and the others seem sharper than you (many reached the 95th percentile on the SAT). The professor doesn’t know who you are and appears too busy with his own research to care. The first midterm comes back with a C+ on top, a letter you have never seen before.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Elite U admitted you, told you that you belonged there. Now, it says you don’t measure up, that you’re not as good as you think you are.
Parents and old friends are far away. The college talks about school spirit and collaborative learning, but you feel wholly on your own. You’re never going to be a doctor.
Here is one genesis of the idiom of trauma that sounds so melodramatic to outsiders. Competition yields winners and losers, and if you’ve been a winner for 19 years, the first defeat doesn’t go smoothly. It becomes a bigger matter than your struggle with fluid mechanics. You generalize the situation. By Week 4 of the term, Physics and Organic Chemistry have become unsafe spaces. When you hear the language of pain and vulnerability, it makes perfect sense and you sympathize with those who invade the provost’s office.
Everybody wants to be safe. Nobody likes nonstop insecurity. But selective schools, always in search of excellence, can’t remain selective and excellent without competition. The meritocracy must continue—and so will anxiety. We should expect more protests and safe-space demands in the coming school year.