The classic musical “Bye Bye Birdie” tells the story of rock ’n’ roll star Conrad Birdie (think Elvis Presley) and the mayhem that results when he arrives in a small Ohio town. Like many depictions of that era, the 56-year-old production features a song, “Kids,” that describes the many flaws of young adults in the 1950s. The refrain is “What’s the matter with kids today?” and the song describes “kids” as “disobedient,” “disrespectful,” “crazy,” and “lazy.” In a moment of comedic nostalgia, it asks “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”
Today’s media seems to be singing a new version of “Kids.” A recent column by Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post, titled “Liberal intolerance is on the rise on America’s college campuses,” cites a recent research survey in which 43 percent of entering freshman said “colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers.” Rampell adds that a number of student groups (now about 76) have presented “demands” to their university administration, and several university presidents have stepped down in response to student protests. Collectively, Rampell views these developments as a shift on campuses in which liberal voices are “muzzling” other voices on campus. Countless similar articles in the media have focused on related issues like trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and the “coddling” of today’s students.
Like the adults in “Bye Bye Birdie,” the media critics and their analyses are superficial and their characterizations fundamentally inaccurate. I interact with our students every day. I see our students at their best and their worst. I see snapshots of their achievements and hear the extended narratives of their lives. There is so much more than the caricatures presented in the media.
Our students are ambitious, talented and hard-working. Every day, I meet a student who is pursuing a double major and leading one or more co-curricular groups. They are students like the young man in our M.A. program in history who has been offered full scholarships to Ph.D. programs at the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan. They are artists and student-athletes who bring their unique talents and extraordinary commitment to our community. They are the student from our Imperial Valley Campus who recently took a two-hour Greyhound bus ride to the San Diego campus for a one-hour co-curricular activity because “he wanted to learn more.”
Our students are embracing the opportunities afforded by an SDSU education. Over 550 students will be participating in our Student Research Symposium next month, and over 1,000 students are participating in the Aztec Mentor Program. Our ZIP Launchpad and Lavin Entrepreneurship Center are preparing future entrepreneurs, and our students are leading efforts in sustainability and service learning.
Aztecs are adventurers. Students are coming to San Diego State from across the globe, seeking to advance their educations and their lives. As just one example, I recently met an enthusiastic young woman from a small town in Minnesota who was brave enough to leave the world she knew to join us here in San Diego. Our California students are embracing this ethos of adventure, venturing out to prepare for their roles as global citizens. Over 2,400 students had an international experience last year, and we rank 15th in the nation for study abroad.
To speak directly to students’ desire to ban extreme speakers, it may reflect a noble longing (albeit one pursued through the wrong means). Our students have grown up in one of the most diverse societies in history. They have seen it fractured by faction, and they have heard many political leaders say hateful things. For many students, the desire to ban extreme speakers comes from a well-meaning desire to protect themselves and to bring harmony to our community. This laudable desire for community also manifests itself in other ways, such as in enthusiastic participation in our One SDSU Community initiative – which brings students from many groups together for community service and dialogues on our diverse communities.
Our students are not constitutional lawyers when they enter SDSU (although they may be someday), and they are not always intimately familiar with our longstanding American tradition of protecting speech, regardless of its content. As an advocate for freedom of expression, I have had extended discussions with many students who come to more nuanced understandings of the implications of banning speakers when they learn more about the historical and constitutional contexts.
This brings me to my essential point. It is our collective responsibility and privilege to support today’s students and to help them develop into the future leaders of our society. Our extraordinary faculty and staff support this important work every day, but everyone in our community can participate. We can join our community to support students who are participating in artistic, cultural and athletics events. We can provide funds to support scholarships and programming to help students pursue an education for leadership in the 21st century. We can all make an important difference for our students and for our society’s future.
The question “What’s the matter with kids today?” is, to be blunt, the wrong question.
The right question is “How can we work as One SDSU Community to support our students?”
Every day, members of our community give profound and enthusiastic answers to this question, and for that I am extremely grateful.