Opinion: Why the Gaza war has spun campuses into chaos

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It’s difficult to know what to make of the turmoil on college campuses these days — the protests, polarization, intimidation and general bitterness. In a revealing article in The Wall Street Journal, higher education reporter Douglas Belkin sets these events against a broader backdrop: the disappearance of a sense of community. He points to research demonstrating that “College students today are lonelier, less resilient and more disengaged than their predecessors … The university communities they populate are socially fragmented, diminished and less vibrant.”

One wonders whether this loss of community has led to more distrust, sharper disagreements and more anger. People are encountering one another at these protests often for the first time, often as strangers.

The college campus I went to decades ago was full of political disagreements. It was the time of Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, the nuclear freeze movement and divestment from South Africa. Tents and a shantytown were built on the plaza outside the president’s office. But we also had long and soul-searching debates about the issues.

In every group I was in, at class or in extracurricular organizations, people disagreed about the issues but did so seriously, listening to others and engaging in what was mostly civil discourse. (Though it’s easy to romanticize the past. When Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, came to speak, student protesters repeatedly tried to disrupt his speech. But the vast majority in the room — most of whom almost certainly disagreed with Weinberger — booed the protesters.)

When I went to Yale, it was a place with overflowing classrooms and meeting halls, keg parties, debates, plays and sporting events always well-attended — which all made for a rich community. Many of my best friends today are people I met in those packed rooms four decades ago.

I’ve returned to my campus several times since then, and for many years it felt very much the same place I had been to all those years ago. But over the last decade, campus life has seemed thinner. And then came Covid, which like a neutron bomb decimated community life on campus while leaving all the beautiful buildings intact.

In his essay, Belkin quotes a former residential assistant at another college whose job it was to help socialize the freshmen. Many wouldn’t leave their rooms even for dorm meetings, asking over text if they could video chat instead. “I was literally across the hall,” the bewildered RA said. An official at another university suggested, “This may be the new normal, there may be no real return to the past.”

While the pandemic might have been the great accelerator, the decline of social capital — the bonds that sustain communities — has been a theme of scholarly work for decades now. The seminal work on this topic was a 1995 essay by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam (later expanded into a book),Bowling Alone.” The title draws on data that showed that more Americans were bowling but fewer and fewer were bowling in leagues.

Putnam follows the decline of social groups and tries to pinpoint causes. The “single most consistent predictor,” he presciently observed, was television. Technology and the internet have allowed people to make leisure a private rather than communal activity.

It goes beyond college campuses. In my book, “Age of Revolutions,” I point out that what has really caused alienation in America, even when incomes have stayed steady or risen, has been the collapse of community in small town America: “The mom-and-pop store? Gone, unable to compete with Amazon. The corner arcade? Displaced by online gaming. The local movie theater? Run out of town by Netflix.” Churches, where so many Americans gathered every Sunday, are increasingly empty.

The big metro centers to which everyone has flocked do have communities, but they are communities largely shaped by our jobs. Journalist Nicholas Lemann once noted that he had lived in five American cities: Washington, New Orleans, Austin, Cambridge and Pelham, New York. According to him, the two “most deficient in the Putnam virtues” — essentially lacking in social capital — were Cambridge and Washington.

“The reason,” as he put it, “is that these places are the big time. Work absorbs all the energy … Community is defined functionally, not spatially: it’s a professional peer group rather than a neighborhood.” And it’s natural to wonder whether this sense of community is tenuous — that, if you lose your job, your membership in the community is revoked along with it.

College campuses today are still exciting places. They are full of smart, well-meaning students, extraordinary professors and all kinds of educational and extracurricular opportunities. But they have weakened as actual communities, where people mingle, interact and get to know and trust each other. And in this sense, campuses today are not that different from the broader American society of which they are a reflection.

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