The campus and the country have been liberated — at a cost.
America really isn’t like Stanford, even though many want it to be. There are crucial differences between the two that should make elites hesitant before transferring the forces that make places like Stanford work onto the rest of the country.
In The Fractured Republic, conservative scholar Yuval Levin argues that America has become a nation of “bifurcated concentration” — the middle of American society has been hollowed out, but there is greater concentration on both ends. Charles Murray offers some examples:
“Wealth and poverty are each more concentrated geographically, and more separated. Giant corporations and boutique enterprises flourish, while medium-sized factories and locally owned stores are squeezed out. The centralized power of the two major parties has diminished, but political polarization has increased. The Internet enables us to interact exclusively with people who share our avocations and political views, displacing interactions with the more varied mix of the people who live in our geographic vicinity.”
Now, Levin concludes, “Society consists of individuals and a national state, while the mediating institutions — family, community, church, unions, and others — fade and falter.” Levin does not prophesize the reemergence of a common culture and institutions to unite all Americans. Rather, he hopes for more diversity and devolution of power, culminating in the formation of multiple strong subcultures that can restore to Americans the social capital of previous times.
Which reminds me of Stanford.
Look around, and you will find the same fracture of our common ties. Without a core curriculum, economics majors, philosophy majors, and computer science majors have essentially zero common threads between their educations. Outside of the classroom, the average student never learns the lyrics of our fight song, knows little, if anything, about the state of the football team, and may not even be able to attend Full Moon on the Quad if the administration has its way. We don’t share the same unifying symbols and purposes or gravitate toward the same central institutions. Instead we build our own and we do it well.
The engineers bond while racing solar cars or launching satellites. The politicos argue endlessly in debate rounds, speaker events, journals, and on Facebook. The social justice warriors organize, educate, and polemicize. The greens camp out in the quad and build lifelong memories fighting for climate change action. The nonconformists build communities in co-ops in which they can (non-)conform. Sports teams have their own communities that seem to occupy all of their members’ time. Ethnic and religious minorities each have their own student organizations and community-building events. Conservatives gather round and alternate between laughing at and engaging in false victimization. To each his own, and we love it. Stanford is the place where subcultures thrive.
Does Stanford even have a common culture?
Yes, but it’s not anything technological, and it’s not even hookup culture. Rather, Stanford students are united by a shared but unspoken liberal instinct to distrust any external constraint to individual choice. It doesn’t matter who tells us what we can or cannot do: Stanford administrators, religious authorities, gender differences, and customary practices all seem inherently suspicious, if not outright oppressive. Instead, we embrace disruption.
The ethic of disruption is also the generic ethic of the Western elite, and it improves their lives with technological or cultural innovation. It works for elites and the elite-in-training because we always marry it with another shared ethic: achievement. We achieved to get here and we never stop achieving as we labor with the expectation that we will continue achieving after college. So we uproot established traditions and practices when we see fit. Elites can confidently assume they are going to keep on achieving anyway, almost regardless of the underlying conditions that may drag down the bottom half. Their disruption is really just individualism paired with achievement.
That is the reason why Stanford will never be a workable model for our nation. America cannot presuppose an ethic of achievement. America doesn’t have an admissions staff. About 86% of Americans became American by being born here, and many of the other 14% immigrated because their family happened to be born here. When we look at America, we are no longer talking about Stanford’s carefully selected population of valedictorians.
Unfortunately, elites have ignored this fundamental difference and brought their ethic of disruption from the campus to the country. The great project of the liberal elite was “the progressive emancipation of the individual from the tyrannous and irrational statuses handed down from the past,” as Robert Nisbet put it in his masterpiece, The Quest for Community. But in doing so, the individualists generally ignored and destabilized the carefully calibrated institutions, norms, and values refined over thousands of years, which cultivated achievement for large populations.
What to do about tight-knit communities with strict traditions and customs? Elites had the answer: Flaunt the customs and dismiss them as vestiges of an oppressive past. Never mind that they helped order people’s lives to productive ends. Traditional religious institutions? Mock them and shame their members as idiots and bigots. Never mind that they helped to morally form citizens and humans, encourage reliable family structures, and provide networks of mutual assistance for parishioners. The elites led a reckless cultural shift in the hopes of producing free individuals. But disruption disrupted, and many non-elites found no replacement but alienation and the cold, dangerous comfort of a “national community.”
Division and disruptionhave had consequences for Stanford as well. Our academic liberation has made it is harder for students across disciplines to relate, and our sexual liberation leaves many feeling unfulfilled or regretful. Identity politics has paradoxically raised the social and emotional stakes of increasingly irrelevant campus politics; policy positions have become attacks on tribes, which then have had to close ranks to defend themselves. But for the most part, we continue to achieve.
Out in America, the bursting of authority, parental and communal, has meant more births out-of-wedlock, the grim reality of paternal abandonment, and no clear image of adulthood for children. Identity politics seemed to offer community, but have also fuelled support for dangerous leaders like Al Sharpton and Donald Trump; a totalizing political community is no replacement for genuine social relationships. Economic dislocation and alienation deserve their own article. The inevitable costs of progress and disruption hit most Americans harder that it hit elites.
Robert Nisbet writes, “Authority and liberation, convention and revolt — these are the creative rhythms of civilization.” But without customary or social authority, community falters. Instead, we are just left with endless revolt, manifested in the isolated individual eventually giving in to the appealing, homogenizing power of the state.
The same forces have struck both the campus and the country. Different by nature, Stanford will do just fine. But for America, success will have to be cultivated again.