This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
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.
I ran another theory by the group.
I asked how many people at the table grew up in the same place at least one of their parents did. One girl from Santa Fe, New Mexico raised her hand. Next I asked how many lived within 10 miles of a grandparent. Two more hands went up, one from a guy raised in Berlin, the other whose parents emigrated from India and brought along his grandmother. Except for the kids from Berlin and Santa Fe, none of these kids knew the grandparents, aunts and uncles or extended families of their childhood friends. Not surprisingly, these kids had not seen many examples of parents or relatives being actively involved in politics or local civic groups.
This little experiment got the group thinking about different explanations for the state of political engagement on campus. Political behavior is learned, just like most social behaviors. And political behavior is less common outside of real communities.
Real communities, of course, have become scarcer in nomadic America.
Not many students have real role models for political engagement. Mostly it is an activity that happens on TV, often performed by buffoons.
Social critics, sociologists, Marxists, American Tories, preachers, pundits and prophets have charted the myriad alienations, angst's and anxieties spawned by the decline of community for a century or so. But the relationship between declining community and declining civic engagement in America is susceptible to empirical study. The most famous such study is Robert Putnam's book, "Bowling Alone." Published in 2000, he painstakingly documented a decline in how much Americans participate in community groups like the Elks Club, Boy Scouts or even bowling leagues, activities that give people "social capital" which is a key ingredient to happiness.
Putnam's argument was controversial and not everyone agrees that civic engagement is kaput. I find it hard to argue with. I also think the effects of "bowling alone" on politics and public political argument are wildly underestimated and ignored. Political elites are now hyper-polarized – they hate each other, their arguments are obnoxious and interminable, their statecraft is ineffective and generally politics is seen as sour. Although there is overwhelming evidence that American public opinion is not polarized and that Americas share a great, wide fundamental set of civic values, public political activity is polarized and antagonistic and there is little commonality. It's hard to have a community of values without real community.
Since I work in the online news business, I expected that the Stanford students, nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley, would have high hopes for the Internet's capacity to build virtual communities, opportunities for like-minded souls (Barbie collectors, diabetics, fans of "Leave it to Beaver") to transcend space and time and interact in meaningful ways. They took just the opposite tack. These students spend a ton of time online – downloading music, e-mailing, instant messaging, Googling and chatting. The newest craze, and it's huge, is Facebook, a social networking set of sites that is sort of like a completely interactive, talking yearbook. Yet all the students I met saw Internet life as isolating and they worried about it. I too worry that the Internet will be yet another tool of social balkanization and that the attachments it spawns will be more toxic and provide little "social capital."
But maybe that's just what the dumbest guy in the room thinks.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer