Like anyone, I'm concerned about the growing trend on college campuses of demanding trigger warnings and the removal of books from the curriculum due to their perceived unpleasantness. But most of the articles I see on the subject boil it down to a "these darned millennials!" argument. After all, they point out, don't people go to college to be challenged? The answer to this oft-posed rhetorical question is actually 'no.' For decades, the number of high school graduates who attend college has increased, hitting 70% in 2009.
A couple weeks ago, I heard a story on NPR about special ed in some Southern public schools. The mother of a sixth grade special ed student was interviewed throughout the piece, and she expressed her concerns about the inadequacy of her child's education, including the claim that he wasn't being prepared for college like the other students. This child is in sixth grade; he is closer to kindergarten than college. The entire K-12 system is designed to feed students into the college system, and everything from the testing to the rhetoric has this goal. College is portrayed as the only path to success, from the moment you enter to the moment you graduate. But while the K-12 system may strive to prepare students for college academically, they are actively prohibited from encouraging the type of intellectually/socially challenging material we see being protested. I did a quick google news search for teachers being fired, and, putting aside sexually inappropriate conduct, and I found a teacher who was fired for participating in a burlesque show (in a different state from where she taught), a teacher who was fired for appearing in a rap video that included some drug imagery, a teacher fired for drinking alcohol on an extended field trip to New Orleans (two and a half glasses over five days, hardly a bender). On top of that there are the consistent challenges to books from all quarters, and this is not from the students. This is from the parents, who don't want their precious children being exposed to things that challenge their (i.e., the parents') views. This of course ignores dress codes, which often preclude anything with a message that others may deem offensive (e.g. political/(a)religious/etc t-shirts/symbols).
So what do we expect to happen?! We have a system where teachers who are challenging or unorthodox risk their jobs by being so, where books that are seen as "offensive" (by conservative religious groups as much or more than any other group) are routinely pressured out of the schools, where any activity or dress that's seen as challenging the authority and uniformity of the school culture is condemned. What do we think these kids are going to be like after twelve years of this? As long as we have a K-12 system (and, perhaps more importantly, the community around that system) that makes innovation and controversial subject matter taboo, we're going to have this problem with college students.