Columns, Opinions

Mulligan ’19: Don’t talk down to millennials

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, April 20, 2018

A 2018 report from Temple University and the Wisconsin Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education Lab suggests that food insecurity is a much larger issue on college campuses than previously thought, affecting 42 percent of community college students and 36 percent of four-year college students. In a USA Today op-ed, libertarian commentator James Bovard provides a vastly different view, summed up in the article’s title: “College Students Aren’t Hungry, They’re Lazy.”

I could spend this piece sharing stories that I’ve seen and heard about on campus, about students whose main source of meals is the free swipes at the end of their shifts with Brown University Dining Services, or students who seek out free food or borrowed meal credits because they wouldn’t be able to eat otherwise. But that’s anecdotal evidence, easily hand-waved away, and for the purpose of this piece, it doesn’t really matter if 9 percent or 99 percent of college students have difficulty accessing regular meals. Instead, what I want to look at is the condescending tone that Bovard adopts throughout his piece, a tone reminiscent of the 2017 moment when an Australian millionaire identified avocado toast and coffee as the source of millennials’ money woes. The patronizing rhetoric that some older commentators like Bovard apply when discussing millennial and Generation Z students makes it difficult to facilitate intergenerational communication, ultimately creating yet another rift in our deeply polarized political climate.

Bovard suggests that college students are unable to accurately identify our problems. Survey respondents were asked “whether they feared ‘food would run out before (they) got money to buy more,’ or if they “ever eat less than (they) felt (they) should because there wasn’t enough money for food?’” to which Bovard responds, “Redefining hunger as abstaining from second servings makes for a push-button crisis.” In likening the conservative consumption of food to just choosing not to have a second serving, Bovard perpetuates the notion that younger generations exaggerate our problems: Our issue isn’t that we don’t have enough food; it’s that we make too big a deal about the basic human need of wanting to not be hungry. This tactic is an attempt to undermine students when they identify problems that might not be apparent to those outside of the situation.

Continuing in this vein, Bovard uses rhetorical questions to ridicule the study’s findings, instead of performing any sort of journalistic investigation into the claims: “The study asserts that 26 percent of students with a college meal plan are ‘food insecure.’ Did they oversleep and miss breakfast?” Bovard chooses to ignore possibilities like students having to purchase an insufficient meal plan because a larger plan would be too expensive. Instead of challenging the study’s findings, he tries to use sarcasm like a late-night talk show host, assuming that his audience will agree with him instead of looking deeply at the study’s claims.

He again chooses a reactionary approach when he mocks the study’s finding that around 50 percent of Pell Grant recipients qualify as food-insecure: “Apparently, no matter how many handouts government provides, students still cannot be expected or trusted to feed themselves.” However, Pell Grants are provided only to students with “exceptional financial need,” according to the Department of Education, and they are maxed out at $6,095. In addition, students who need Pell Grants likely have to think about other expenses, like housing, textbooks and school supplies. By trying to frame the situation as one of financial irresponsibility, Bovard uses the same tactic as in the aforementioned avocado toast incident, acting as though money problems are solely individual issues, not the result of larger systems of inequality. This argument again presents millennials and the generations after them as demanding handouts to correct for their own mistakes, ignoring the bigger picture in which a $6,095, at most, grant can’t cover both food and all other academic expenses.

Bovard attempts to dismantle the study through various angles in his op-ed, including a particularly interesting moment when he attempts to equate correlation with causality in order to question the study’s observation that LGBTQ+ students are at a greater risk of food insecurity than their heterosexual and/or cisgender peers. He also tries to use rising obesity rates to undermine the possibility of food insecurity — as though there isn’t a high association between poverty and obesity, which suggests that the simultaneous rise of weight gain and food insecurity on college campuses could be linked. Both of these statements once again rely on the readers to just accept millennial stereotypes instead of thinking critically about the claims presented.

The second-to-last paragraph drives home the point of how Bovard’s piece is part of the larger dialogue of older commentators attempting to undermine younger ones: “The Post noted in 2012 that ‘the typical student today spends 27 hours a week in study and class time, roughly the same time commitment expected of students in a modern full-day kindergarten.’ But expecting students to use free time to get a job to feed themselves is beyond the pale.” The arrogant and exaggerated tone he uses when analyzing a statistic with virtually no relevance to his larger claim indicates a sense of superiority on Bovard’s part; he holds the answer — get a job! — that the hungry college student lacks. Never mind the fact that 25 percent of full-time students also work full-time, or that 80 percent of college students work at all. Bovard expects his reader to agree that college students are only as busy as kindergarteners, and above all, that we’re lazy to the point where we would choose hunger over employment.

Is food insecurity a problem on college campuses? Probably. But the larger problem that Bovard’s piece demonstrates is the continued portrayal of younger generations as entitled and demanding, a portrayal that relies on the assumption that the reader won’t critically examine baseless claims. As long as older writers continue to blast younger generations as “narcissistic” and “stunted” — as one in Time magazine recently did — there can be no hope for honest and open communication across generations. And in today’s politically tumultuous world, those conversations are sorely needed.

Caroline Mulligan ’19 can be reached at caroline_mulligan@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.