Coronavirus and Cromwell

Coronavirus and Cromwell

Beyond a top tier education, for four years students look to Stanford for food and shelter, emotional and professional support, mental health resources, built-in communities like frosh dorms, and a place to belong. Many students, colloquially or literally, refer to Stanford as “home.” That’s good, and a part of what makes Stanford a strong community.

However, the current pandemic has revealed how even the best universities fall short of a real home and family.

Since I have been home, my dad has stockpiled non-perishables, my mom has planted a garden of rosemary, and my siblings have entertained themselves with baking and karaoke. At the same time, I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The historical novel is ostensibly about Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in Henry VIII’s court, but most striking in the context of a homebound spring quarter is the depiction of Cromwell’s household, known as Austin Friars.

Despite the tragic deaths of his wife and daughters at the hands of the so-called “sweating sickness,” Austin Friars thrived as a large and lively household. The house was home not only to Cromwell and his son, but their extended family as well, including Cromwell’s sisters, nieces and nephews, in-laws, and wards.

The family and home are the most basic pillars of any healthy society, be it a family by blood or choice, nuclear or extended. There is no comparison between spending quarantine in a loving home and spending it alone in a Stanford dorm.

Today, large multigenerational homes are rare. Rarer still are households like Austin Friars that include a broad network of interdependent relationships. They should not be.

In Wolf Hall, both Cromwell and his household benefit from the stability and support of a broad family network. Cromwell becomes a father figure to an orphaned nephew and accompanies him to court, even being recognized as the king’s cousin. And where the loss of his wife and daughters could have left Cromwell detached and isolated, he instead finds love and comfort with his entire extended family around him.

In many ways, Stanford is currently serving the same role as Austin Friars for students with nowhere else to go. To about 640 students, including internationals, those unable to travel home, immunocompromised students, and homeless students, Stanford is still home this Spring, a role for which it was not designed and is not best suited. Worse, a total of 3000 students applied for on-campus housing during the pandemic.

Continuing to house those who need it is laudable, especially since Stanford’s peer institutions sent all students packing on short notice regardless of situation. But it raises the larger question of why as many as 3000 Stanford undergraduates have nowhere else to go in a crisis. We have the power to change that.

Under normal circumstances, Stanford students are rightly considered some of the most privileged in the world. We are also some of the most creative and collaborative. When so many of us lack a reliable support system beyond the school, it’s incumbent on us to find a lasting solution even after the pandemic ends. Going forward, we have the responsibility and ability to build homes and communities that stand even when Stanford cannot.

The modern nuclear family is quite fragile: small fractals of what once was, and still could be, a resilient and interconnected extended family. In such large households, there is always someone to support you. That is hardly the case today, and that should worry us.

Stanford can provide for basic needs like housing and food. But a faceless institution cannot provide the love, care, guidance, or purpose vital to every person.

Homes like Austin Friars should be the rule rather than the exception. We should strive to build more stable and more independent families across the nation that can care for the people within them. If a parent and child relationship becomes strained, each should have other close relations to fill the void. If a breadwinner loses his or her job, there should be other incomes to supplant it. If a child goes through his or her first heartbreak, someone should be there to comfort and guide. Any shocks - like a divorce, a death, or a pandemic - can be better absorbed by the whole rather than the one alone.

Cromwell’s world was imperfect, as is our own. But Austin Friars, and other households like it, serve as a paragon of what today we are missing and what tomorrow we should create.

Today, the best we can do is support our friends and neighbors in any way we can, such as opening our homes to those who need a place to stay. But we can also look to the future. Soon we will graduate and start careers and families of our own. We should remember Austin Friars when we do.

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