Being the dumbest guy in the room is not exactly something new for me, but being the dumbest guy in a room full of people 30 years younger is especially — well, let's just call it special.
I had that very special experience this week while having lunch with a dozen or so Stanford undergraduates. The students were all members of Stanford In Government, a "student-run organization that promotes political awareness and involvement on the Stanford campus." One young woman said SIG's ambition was to "pierce the bubble" of campus insularity about things political.
All the students agreed that was an immense challenge.
These kids were not the hard-core politicos on campus, neither the College Republicans nor Young Trotskyites. There were as many computer science majors as political scientists. Yet they all described the student body as either apathetic or cynical about politics and social controversy. Never mind participating in sit-in's, protests and campaigns – the free editions of The New York Times stacked in dorms and dining rooms go unread (hopefully, all the students are getting their news online!). Political arguments at meals are rare; political topics seem not to be considered intellectually interesting or, despite a war where people their ages are being killed, urgent. They all felt the political ethos – perhaps hegemony – on campus is a somewhat insipid liberalism that has more to do with political correctness, not political passion or fascination. In short, politics are so lame.
Important sidebar: many students, this group reported, do participate in some type of volunteer work – maybe most. It's a habit partly nurtured by high school community service programs that are now common, but it's still also an important measure of civic character too.
Naturally, my question was, "why?" What were their explanations? They had two basic theories beyond noting that virtually all undergraduates think politicians are gross, television news is dumb and government is futile.
These kids said their classmates felt politics didn't matter in practical ways to their daily lives or their future prospects. Yes, there may be a war, but there's no draft, so the war is "abstract" for most students. They grew up in prosperous, stable times and nothing about the political world has ever endangered their view of their own prospects to do well.
This is a variation of a theme I often hear from news executives, that "the audience" wants stories they "care" about, that are "relevant." Well, I don't buy this theory when it comes to news or campus politicization. Kids don't volunteer because of self-interest; they do it because it is personally meaningful and interesting. Similarly, news consumers don't just want stories about Social Security and diseases they might get. They want stories about things they are curious about, things they don't know – from Brad and Angelina to Darfur. Relevance is overrated.
Their other theory is simply that Stanford students are extremely goal-oriented and busy, and the time not put into "productive" uses is for fun. One student gave a very savvy analysis about how getting into Stanford now demands a very disciplined, focused individual who can rack up both terrific grades and stunning extracurricular activities (including, they all said, volunteer work), so it is unreasonable to expect that goal-oriented behavior to end in college. Something like political activity – or even civic curiosity — is a distraction that isn't even fun.
All of the students in this group agreed that it was rare for an undergraduate to want "an education for education's sake." Instead, they are focused on careers. The reigning campus archetype for success is I-banking (investment banking for you geezers). If you're a superstar or really well-connected, you can go straight into it. Otherwise you do consulting for two years to pay for B-school then go to an I-bank.