The phrase ‘regression to infantilism’ was first coined by renowned intellectual-cum-iconoclast Christopher Hitchens on an episode of topical debate show Charlie Rose in 1994.
The YouTube upload of this show is doubly important. Upon first viewing, it functions as a how-to on civil discourse that we could all benefit from watching in today’s climate of hypersensitive emotional screeching masquerading as debate. Secondly, it contains a prophetic assertion made by Hitchens that University students at the time were treading a dangerous path by imposing ‘more authorities’ upon themselves in the name of correctitude. Hitchens warns that enabling Universities to act in loco parentis in this way by mediating complaints between students would have an infantilising effect on students at large.
This wide-scale infantilization is most visible on American college campuses, where the prevalence of safe space culture has drawn international criticism. A New York Times article from 2015 entitled In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas details how Brown University created a ‘safe space’ replete with cookies, play-doh and puppy videos to help protect the sensibilities of vulnerable students while a debate on sexual assault was raging on campus.
This fixation with childish toys and behaviour amongst the college-aged is somewhat disquieting. The idea that a third-level student at an Ivy League school should opt for play-doh over stimulating academic debate for fear of hearing an opinion that contravenes their own is anathema to what university is all about: the broadening of horizons. Reverting to childhood memories as a means of blocking out unpleasant realities is symptomatic of this regression to infantilism Hitchens warned us about.
According to Sigmund Freud, regression is a type of defence mechanism leading to a temporary reversion to an earlier stage of development as a means of avoiding the unpleasant realities at hand. When presented with awkward and unfair situations, we have a tendency to revert to an earlier, formative stage of our life as a means of coping.
Are we falling into this trap here at NUI Galway? According to a survey conducted on SIN’s Facebook page, 37% of respondents believe that NUI Galway is in need of safe spaces similar to the one created at Brown at the time of writing. Moreover, the Students’ Union runs a pet farm around exam time to help students deal with the trauma of rigorous academic testing. They also hold ‘petting sessions’ with a friendly dog on Wednesdays.
In-coming Welfare Officer Megan Reilly also plans to bring in ‘nap spaces’ for students on campus during her tenure next year. The imposition of nap spaces is in recognition of the fact that your average college day ranges far beyond the typical nine-to-five stereotype, which is completely true. Most students in my LLB class for example are subjected to a twelve-hour day, as many as four times a week! Megan told SIN that nap spaces proved extremely popular during the election campaign and will be brought in for mental health reasons and also to help students with disabilities.
“There are nap spaces in a lot of other colleges and the wheels have already been set in motion here, the idea being that college is not a 9-5 job,” she explained.
“It is a constant experience that can be extremely exhausting and I would like to bring them on campus for mental health reasons, as well as for students with disabilities. It’s an interesting argument that it might infantilise … but I don’t think this is the intention nor do I believe it will have this effect.”
All of these developments are indeed helpful and welcome, it would be pointless to claim otherwise. I had one of the best days of my life petting llamas at the SU-organised pet farm last term, and it would also be remiss of me to say that I wouldn’t get great use out of a nap room having fallen asleep in the library more times than I care to remember.
While nap spaces and visits from friendly dogs are well-intentioned policies that certainly have the capacity to raise student morale, there is a broader question of policy to be considered here. College students are adults for the most part, and need to be treated as such. The world is a tough place, and so we must learn to be. Wouldn’t universities be far better served fostering responsibility and self-sufficiency amongst their student bodies as opposed to taking up a nannying role?
There is a serious lack of self-sufficiency amongst the student body here at NUI Galway, as anyone who was taken a seat at a recently-vacated table in the Bialann would surely attest. We are far too happy to wait around for someone else to clear up our mess instead of taking the extra thirty seconds to bring our trays to the refuse receptacles ourselves. The men’s toilets are also symptomatic of this refusal to take responsibility for one’s own actions. I often wonder, how can someone be intelligent enough to be accepted into university but not have the common sense to flush a toilet, or even aim properly? There is a common perception that it is someone else’s job to clean up after messes we ourselves create.
There is evidence of widespread infantilization across wider society. Superhero movies and reboots dominate the box office, capitalising on our over-stated sense of nostalgia. This is Freud’s idea of regression blown up on a societal scale. Does anyone remember when JK Rowling got 250,000 retweets for likening then-candidate Donald Trump to Draco Malfoy in a heated exchange with Piers Morgan? This is the kind of skewed infantile worldview that arises in an atmosphere of near-constant nostalgia.
We now live in an era whereby political developments are interpreted through the guiding lens of Harry Potter quotes, where Pepe the Frog memes have become a symbol for the dangerous alt-right movement, where Katy Perry commands more political clout than most actual commentators. To play fast-and-loose with a Stranger Things reference, we are living in the upside down.
The culture of bellicose political correctness is in my belief symptomatic of the infantilised attitudes universities have fostered amongst students. We must draw a halt to the heinous culture of dog-petting and incessant napping, lest all be lost. In all seriousness, NUI Galway has managed to emerge from this era of hypersensitive polarity relatively unscathed. As a student body, we are largely open to new ideas and those who challenge our preconceived paradigms of how society functions. However, in order to keep it that way we must learn how to clear up our own damn trays and coffee cups.
-By Eoin Molloy