“An Open Letter to Jennifer Senior of the New York Times: Who Are You to Tell Us What to Do?” was written by Stella Weston, a 15-year-old New Zealand native, as part of the Write the World Civics in Action project. The heart of the matter — the impact of COVID on college students.
With today’s heightened awareness of political correctness, how we portray ourselves and our image, and how we phrase our viewpoint, is crucial to our daily interactions. Our internet presence is so accessible, and with our society increasingly divided over issues of acceptance, we have to be careful that the message that comes across in publications, and even conversations, is the message we intend to deliver. Due to the way it was phrased, Jennifer Senior’s letter to liberal arts students published in the New York Times came across as patronizing, and I found its generalizations simplistic and outdated.
Senior argues not only that liberal arts students aren’t useful to the world, but also that a college education itself isn’t useful and rarely gives students “the chance to productively engage with the world.” In fact, this is a time in our lives to learn and explore intellectually, so we can contribute to the world after college, with a broadened perspective and multifaceted understanding.
Senior also implies that, in contrast to community college students, liberal arts students work far less and are pampered because their colleges are “cloistered, passive settings.” Even as a New Zealander, I know personally that these arguments are simplistic generalizations.
My brother, Paddy is enrolled at Pomona College, a liberal arts school in California. The vast majority of Pomona students work as well as study, and first-generation and/or low-income students form one of the largest groups on campus.
COVID-19 has led to Paddy being forced to take a year off from college. Yet he and his American friends (who will be returning to online study) are already ‘making themselves useful.’ Paddy is volunteering on an economics human rights project, and his closest friends are emergency paramedics on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.
“We may regard teenagers as unruly and rebellious,” Senior writes, “but what they may really be is restless, pining for greater agency and productivity, utility.”
The idea that we are rebellious, and lacking direction is almost laughable to me. It is our generation –Gen Z — led by Greta Thunberg, that sparked a worldwide movement of climate strikes, with over four million attendees in September last year. It is our generation who has accepted gender fluidity and diverse sexual orientations like no other, and we have taken part in Black Lives Matter protests at a crucial time.
I do agree with Senior’s statement saying we are pining for greater agency. We have something to say and want changes in the world, but it isn’t easy for young people to achieve this. The very reason we’re ‘rebellious’ and involved in these protests is that we have no voice, no given platform, no power. We have been forced to find our own platforms — be they poetry, protests, Instagram stories or TikToks.
I believe external factors such as our upbringing, whether we are a minority, how much power we are born with, and even the opinions of our parents, are relevant to our sense of agency. It is during our years of secondary and tertiary education that we truly gain the tools to effect change.
Senior’s central message that college students should consider the COVID shutdowns of colleges as an opportunity, rather than feeling they’ve lost something, is offensive. Students have lost more than, “The stimulation of late-night conversation…”
Senior’s tone and phrasing of this is demeaning to students, as their university years are about learning and working hard, learning who they are, gaining life experience and building this sense of agency.
“Having the chance to be useful — not to their families, but to the world — is a luxury at this moment. Students ought to embrace it. They may be astonished by what they find,” Senior writes. What she seems to be missing is the limit to how far you can strain your eyes to look on the bright side of things when the context is a global pandemic.
Many students’ families have been directly impacted by COVID-19, or are essential workers, so the idea that the students should be making themselves useful to others outside of their families ignores the reality of this time.
The truisms in Senior’s Op-Ed — that we learn by doing, and that now is a good time to build new ways of caring for each other and the planet — are lost due to her patronizing delivery. COVID-19 and the closing of colleges is not an opportunity, but an obstacle.
“An Open Letter to Jennifer Senior of the New York Times: Who Are You to Tell Us What to Do?” was written by Stella Weston, a 15-year-old New Zealand native as part of the Write the World Civics in Action project, a collaboration that includes Parentology, the National Children’s Campaign and Facing History & Ourselves. The Black Lives Matter rap is also shared by Write the World.
COVID College Shutdowns: Sources
Other Civics in Action Write the World Articles
Elizabeth Anderson on Changing One’s Privilege
May Zheng on Police and Racism
Allie Lowe on Teens Questioning Racism
Chloe Sow on Calling Out Racism in Asian American Communities
Maxwell Surprenant on Friendships that Bridge Generations
Joseph Mullen on Judgement and Tolerance
Elizabeth Anderson on Kids Dealing with Grief During COVID-19
Amy Nam on Embracing Empathy During Coronavirus