Which is the more useful skill for a successful life, to be able to speak before an audience or to be able to make excuses to justify failure? The newest discrimination is based upon the latter.
But in the past few years, students have started calling out in-class presentations as discriminatory to those with anxiety, demanding that teachers offer alternative options. This week, a tweet posted by a 15-year-old high-school student declaring “Stop forcing students to present in front of the class and give them a choice not to” garnered more than 130,000 retweets and nearly half a million likes. A similar sentiment tweeted in January also racked up thousands of likes and retweets. And teachers are listening.
Math is hard. Conjugating verbs is hard. Heck, picking words beyond “awesome” and “gross” is too hard for many young people to manage. But public speaking?
Students who support abolishing in-class presentations argue that forcing students with anxiety to present in front of their peers is not only unfair because they are bound to underperform and receive a lower grade, but it can also cause long-term stress and harm.
Students have always griped about being forced to do things that are hard. Of course, they can’t find out whether they can do something until they try, and since people tend to avoid trying things they fear, they don’t “try” until compelled to do so. But the key word here is “anxiety,” which seeks to conflate a psychiatric pathology with common fear. Throw in a word like “anxiety” and people come out of the woodwork to inform you that you just don’t appreciate the stress, the harm, the trauma. How can you argue with trauma?
“Nobody should be forced to do something that makes them uncomfortable,” says Ula, a 14-year-old in eighth grade, who, like all students quoted, asked to be referred to only by her first name. “Even though speaking in front of class is supposed to build your confidence and it’s part of your schoolwork, I think if a student is really unsettled and anxious because of it you should probably make it something less stressful. School isn’t something a student should fear.”
There was a time when this infantile rationalization would be the sort of thing that would make an adult chuckle, say “you can do it,” and push a kid to give it a try. It makes you “uncomfortable”? Welcome to life, which is full of wondrous things that will make you uncomfortable until you try them. And learn them. And get over childish discomfort and become the person you can be. Push yourself. Find out what you’re capable of. Be all that you can be, to borrow a phrase.
What’s disconcerting isn’t that kids raise such nonsense, but that it’s taken seriously. The mere raising of “anxiety” has become sufficient to create the aura of discrimination, which has become the one taboo that cannot be ignored. Create some rhetorical excuse, no matter how ridiculous, to claim discrimination and the demands and expectations of maturation grind to a halt.
In 2015, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote “The Coddling of the American Mind” at The Atlantic, which they’ve now turned into a book. Under the guise of protecting our beloved babies from the trauma of everyday life, we’ve empowered them to bubblewrap themselves from any discomfort.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress.
It was only a matter of time for the same excuses to wind their way down to such banal tasks as speaking in front of a class. After all, if the criterion is that it causes discomfort, then everything that causes discomfort will eventually fall into the realm of terrible things that harm the poor darlings. Are we trying to harm children? What sort of monster would demand a child do something harmful? Are we monsters?
But discomfort isn’t harmful. Stressful, sure, but the way in which our species has learned to overcome the stress of doing something that seems hard and uncomfortable is to try it, to do it, to push oneself over the edge of unwarranted fear. Remember that first time diving into a pool? Or that first time eating some creepy food? Or that first time standing up in front of a class to give a presentation?
There is no way to get there without trying. And often it requires practice, experience, before we get good at it and become comfortable doing it. But if we never try, we never know and never gain competence. And we certainly never excel.
The claim of discomfort being traumatizing, the fallback on “anxiety” as if every fear is a pathology, is an easy out and the surest path to failure. If you never try, you never know. If kids are never pushed to try, then they won’t. It’s up to the grownups to tell them that we understand their distress, but until they try, they will never know what they’re capable of doing.
Don’t blame the children for trying to avoid doing things that make them uncomfortable. Blame the adults for taking such childish nonsense seriously.