America Needs to Grow Up

In the chaos of the past few weeks, as adults across so many disciplines have reacted to student protesters with suspensions, zip ties, violent police raids, arrests, and worse, it seems everyone has forgotten something very elemental about university students: They are raw idealists. Which means they can be inspiring, thoughtful, and creatively engaged. But they can also be hellish, self-serving, and terrifyingly shrewd. Trust me, I should know: From 2016 to 2018, I edited dispatches by college kids for the New York Times opinion section for a column called On Campus.

College kids—they protest. A lot. Like, usually around every big election cycle, but about all kinds of issues, big and small. And guess what? They should!

Students are supposed to be volatile and passionate—they’re the new members of our society who shake the comfortable cages adults inhabit to say, “THIS ISN’T SITTING WELL WITH ME.” They are, by definition, in learning environments where they are meant to probe the biggest moral issues of our time through the lens of history or policy or science or art. And they have … so much more energy than we do.

Their methods are not perfect, by any means. Student protesters are messy, petty, and prone to fads—like all of us. But there is nothing surprising or particularly unique about the waves of protests and encampments right now. Young people are seeing something brutal, and they are freaking out about it, with and without nuance. This is where they are. This is, quite frankly, where they should be in this moment, as they are opening their eyes to what that world actually contains.

WE are the adults, not them. And unfortunately, as campuses around the country continue to explode—as over 2,000 campus demonstrators have been arrested, some incredibly violently—we are proving again and again that we are not up to the task. College presidents immediately escalating the protests by calling the cops to remove students from their own quads? Honestly, grow up. David Axelrod spreading the idea that students can’t care enough about the war in Gaza to lead these protests, that those who’ve blockaded themselves in a campus building—one with a long history of student occupation—were led by outside agitators? Grow up. Police raising the American flag at City College in Manhattan as if they had conquered some sort of break-away county in a civil war? GROW UP. The people making fun of students asking for vegan and gluten-free food in their encampments? God, just grow up! Students protesting war is the most natural thing in the whole world, and we shouldn’t be surprised they don’t use the most precise language or the politest actions to communicate what is essentially a primal scream.

Some students have said and done things that are quite ugly and veered into bigotry—against Jews and Muslims alike. But most students do not actually understand how everything works (who does?), which can make them illiberal-sounding, uninformed about the weight of their words or just, well, annoying. Joan Didion does some delightfully bitchy skewering of student protesters in The White Album, writing about the kids at San Francisco State University in 1968 who—during the fiery protests against racism and the Vietnam War that swept college campuses in that era—call a press conference after days of raucous demonstrations only to realize that the problem with press conferences is “that the press asked questions.”

“Two hours and several dozen hand votes later, the group had selected four members to tell the press who owned the media,” Didion notes dryly, going on to accuse the students and professors of “industrious self-delusion” and “unconsciously collaborating on a wishful fantasy (Revolution on Campus) and playing it out in time for the six o’clock news.”

I’ve been thinking about this masterful ethering while watching everyone and their mother moralize over—or, really, dunk on—the Columbia student who, representing those occupying a campus building, asked for food and water and referred to it as “humanitarian aid.” Many have called the video in which she says this offensive, others have called for the student to face difficulty landing internships going forward (which … really? Grow up!).

The writer Eve Barlow tagged the United Nations and tweeted: “Can we please get an airdrop at Columbia University? We need 900 Acai bowls, 1300 Impossible Burgers on gluten free bread with sugar free vegan ketchup and 3000 bottles of pH 9.0 electrolyte water. This is urgent.”

David Frum of the Atlantic tweeted: “The revolution will be catered.”

OK, yes, it’s a little funny. But the glee with which grown adults have jumped on the imprecision of students’ words as a way to undercut the “cause” is damaging to their futures and frankly, lame. What are we saying here? That students aren’t allowed to ever be off-message and self-aggrandizing? That if they sometimes get confused about their sense of safety or the righteousness of their own actions, their entire plea becomes irrelevant?

Again, they’re students! Have any of these people ever met one of those? They are completely within their rights to present muddled messaging to us. It’s not a crime.

We—the adults, the journalists, the police, the mayors, the university administrators—are the ones that are tasked with precision. We are the ones who are supposed to be mature enough to respond to the emotionality behind these protests, however diluted they may be by ill-timed requests for nut milk.

In the years I spent editing students, they wrote beautifully, wrenchingly, and bravely about the protests of those years—about the violence that broke out at Berkeley over right-wing provocateurs coming to campus; about the uproar at Middlebury when Charles Murray came to campus; about protests of Mike Pence at a conservative, Christian college; about the alt-right storming around their campuses; and about the horrible, deadly chaos of the Unite the Right riot at the University of Virginia.

In those years, students I edited also routinely railed against any simplification of their more jargon-infused rants, arguing, at times, that my attempts to streamline or simplify their words meant that I was a fascist. (It was 2016–18, the early Trump years, and monitoring fascism was the cri de coeur.) They yelled at me for the slightest infractions, over pronouns (fair) or not understanding their specific campus’s dynamics (a sign that I might be a fascist). They publicly disavowed their op-eds all over social media and in the comments of their own essays while privately thanking me (because even when I wasn’t fascist, the New York Times certainly was). One enterprising University of Oregon grad even FOIA’d my communications with that school’s president after the president wrote a fairly tame op-ed about the ironies of students silencing others by yelling about fascism. (That FOIA request led to a story in the Eugene Weekly that characterized my editing notes as indicative of my own pernicious opinions, which, you guessed it, were fascist.)

SO WHAT?! I’m an adult! I can handle it! Did I like being called a fascist? No. Did I feel misunderstood? Yes. Is that worth airing publicly? Only to shame you pearl-clutching adult babies who are shocked—shocked!—that students aren’t always intellectually and emotionally consistent!

You’re getting the picture here, right? Students protest. And they protest in raw, emotional, and sometimes confused ways—especially during times of societal upheaval. In 2017, Donald Trump had just been elected, and we were tsking students because they opposed having their campuses turned into stage sets for right-wing content creators. In 2024, we’re hurtling toward another fraught and terrifying election, the Supreme Court is basically handing this thing to Trump, individual rights are being rolled back across many different demographic groups, there’s a brutal war being piped into everyone’s social media feeds, the White House is really not up to approaching the current moment with soothing fireside chats … and we’re mad that the students are freaking out?

I am not excusing antisemitism or Islamophobia. The protests across college campuses have contained plenty of hateful sloganeering that is worth condemning. But I am calling for a little more emotional clarity from the adults who condemn these students for being imperfect ciphers of morality. None of us should be attacking one another for our identities or religious upbringing—but I’m willing to bet that more than a handful of the college kids swept up in the current anti-war fervor had no idea that “from the river to the sea” evoked a sinister double meaning to some American Jews.

And let’s be real: Students have rioted over much, much less. At my own alma mater, Kenyon College, there was a planned annual riot held each spring until the 1990s, a concession granted to students to let them blow off some steam—and one that ensured that the college could save most of its campus buildings in the process.

The riots started in 1964—and let me tell you, it was not because of the Vietnam War or some other contemporary societal turbulence. It was because new traffic signs had been installed in town and jaywalking laws were being enforced. The students tore down six stop signs and blocked highway patrol cars, causing such chaos they were written up in the Columbus Dispatch. Then the students commemorated those actions annually by upping the ante—throwing couches out of windows, burning trees and campus furniture, mauling the firetruck that came one year to respond to a cherry bomb that had been launched into the quad. When the firetruck arrived on the scene, students reportedly bashed in its headlights with hammers and urinated on the wheels. (The school was all-men in those days, if you couldn’t already tell.) In the late ’60s, the school decided to sanction the event as a safety measure, setting aside old furniture in some kind of appeasement scheme that didn’t always tame the chaos.

That is all to say: The students occupying school buildings, putting up tents in their quads, and marching through their campuses are not a sign of some worrisome new trend that we have to crack down on. They are a cohort of young people who are witnessing horrific brutality at a time of unprecedented American politics and who want it to stop.

It is our job, as the adults, to let them protest, loudly and imperfectly. Because guess what? This is what it means to grow up in the United States.