Ross Douthat has, unsurprisingly, written one of the best things on the recent outbreaks at American campuses protesting, amongst other things, institutionalized racism as well as sometimes real and sometimes perceived insensitivities on the part of campus leadership. In short, Douthat’s argument is that as the old humanism of the university died, it was replaced by a strong left wing ethos in the humanities and a careerist, technocratic ethos in the business schools, engineering departments, and so on.
That order held for nearly 50 years if you set its start date in the mid-to-late 1960s. But that always awkward detente has begun to crumble in the face of corruption, genuine on-campus racism, and rampant sexual abuse that often is left unaddressed by college officials. What follows is essentially an attempt to piggyback on Douthat’s general argument by considering a further reason for the collapse of this technocratic-radical order.
A large part of the breakdown of the careerist element to universities has to do not only with the institutional politics of the modern university, but the broader economic conditions that college students are graduating into. For those of us who graduated between 2008 and 2013, our post-college life has often been marked by uncertainty and great financial difficulty. I graduated in May of 2010 and it was not until January of 2013 that I finally had a stable, professional job that allowed me to actually make enough money to start building my savings and for my wife and I to actually even start thinking about a house—and almost three years later we are still renting. Prior to 2013 I scrambled from odd-job to odd-job to supplement my income from working as a clerk at a liquor store or a desk clerk at the local paper or a teacher’s assistant at a local middle school. (I didn’t have a full-time job after graduating for 14 months and my first full-time job after college paid $18,000 a year which, after the cost of insurance for me and my wife was subtracted, amount to around $13,000 in take-home pay.)
But my situation, graduating with relatively small student loan debt and finding a good job in 2.5 years, is actually pretty good compared to many of my peers. This story in The Atlantic looked at the data on millennials and home ownership and found that pretty much the only millennials who own homes are those that come from a rich family. If you’re in your 20s or early 30s and mom and dad helped you with a down payment (and college, most likely) you probably have a home or could if you wanted one. If not, you’re almost certainly renting and don’t have any real prospects of home ownership for the foreseeable future while you pay off loan debt.
Thus part of the reason the careerist controlling mechanism at universities is failing may not have that much to do with the university’s institutional politics (although that probably doesn’t help) but more to do with the fact that a careerist detente works when there are careers on offer after graduation. But when most college students are graduating with big debt and few economic prospects, it’s much harder to hold back student radicalism with the promise of high dollar careers for students who keep their radicalism safely confined to writing papers or student newspaper columns.
But there is a second piece to consider as well: As the broader culture shifts leftward on many social justice issues, the professional costs of perceived radicalism can nearly disappear. As Patrick Deneen has been saying for some time, corporatism and the worldview of our current SJW radicals actually fit together quite nicely in that both benefit from an unbending commitment to individualism. Indeed, the unambiguously joyful response from America’s big businesses to the Obergefell decision underlines the social liberalism that is increasingly the norm in the business world.
Finally, this all builds toward a third consideration: To the extent that the activism of SJWs on university campuses is perceived as genuinely positive work to promote justice, it will be welcome by large corporations for multiple reasons. First, there is business incentive to link yourself with someone who is thought of as a heroic fighter for justice. Call it the Bizarro Justine Sacco Effect.
Second, the modern corporation in many cases sees itself as being far more than a business by which people are able to make money to support themselves or their family. In the absence of traditional little platoons like family, church, and neighborhood something must at least approximate the role of those communities. Though the only social bodies with a sort of absolute ontological existence in the eyes of many today are the individual and the state, there remains the practical fact that no one can provide for their material existence or live a pleasant life entirely by themselves with only the state as community.
There is still need for day-to-day work to occupy ourselves, friends to enrich our daily life, and a small group of people who can help us with smaller, daily needs that cannot really be addressed effectively by a body as large as the state. Enter, the corporation. We now have companies with their own value codes, companies that feed their employees free meals every day, and companies interested in building on-campus housing for their employees. One Google employee has spoken of how the company needs “to be there” for its employees when tragedy strikes. It is increasingly common to find companies advertising their “story” on their website alongside a host of more obviously business-focused concerns.
In the contemporary United States, corporations aren’t just people; they’re families, churches, and neighborhoods all rolled into one. Thus we shouldn’t be surprised that these modern-day adopted families tend to adopt variations of the same sort of code that our current SJW radicals have adopted. To be sure, there is still some softening of that code that happens in these businesses that the unique university context doesn’t require. But the gap between the beliefs and values of the student radicals and the American workplace has never been smaller. And so we shouldn’t be surprised that the traditional chastening mechanisms that kept the post-1960s university order in place are beginning to fracture. But the issue may not be that those mechanisms no longer work, but that they are no longer needed.