“Declaring oneself a socialist was once an act of rebellion; now it is the complacent campus norm.” Mark Pastin
“When the majority of a class would declare themselves to be socialist, I would offer to run the class along socialist principles…This socialist grading scheme was invariably met with outrage, especially, among high-performing students…” Ibid
Young voters love Bernie Sanders. According to entrance and exit polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders beat Hillary Clinton among voters under 30 by nearly six-to-one.
There are many explanations why Sanders is so popular with the young, not the least plausible of which is that his opponent is so singularly unlikable. There is his apparent directness (“authenticity”), his propensity to promise virtually anything (free college, free health care), and his avuncular demeanor. But the most compelling explanation is that young voters actually like the idea of a socialist revolution.
The lure of socialism to the young is nothing new—though the leftists once popular with the college crowd, such as Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, never went so far as to proclaim themselves socialists. But I’ve never found students to be particularly put off by the S-word. In fact, they’ve long been eager to embrace it.
Consider Arizona State University, a school not exactly known for campus radicalism. When I was teaching there in the 1980s, I would often start a new semester by asking the class who among them considered themselves to be socialists. The hands would go up—including a majority in many cases. In 20 years of teaching, whether at Indiana, Michigan, or ASU, this never changed.
When I asked my students what they thought socialism meant, they would generally recite some version of the Marxist chestnut “from each according to ability and to each according to need.” Many said that they were driven to socialism by the inequities of capitalism—and there were few on the faculty to disabuse them of the notion.
If there is a difference today, it is only that socialism is even more popular with the young than it used to be: It’s now as much a part of going off to school as getting a college-logo sweatshirt. I recently led a seminar at the honors college of a private university on the “crisis” at Yale over potentially offensive Halloween costumes, events that had led some Yale students to petition for repeal of the First Amendment because it allowed for “offensive speech.” My audience consisted of some 200 honors students and eight faculty members, and when I asked, many answered that they were socialists. There wasn’t anything defiant about it, indeed it couldn’t have been more matter of fact. Declaring oneself a socialist was once an act of rebellion; now it is the complacent campus norm.
But I’ve always thought that socialism appealed to students because they have never not been on the receiving end of government largesse. And so I would provide an opportunity for my students—in terms they could understand and appreciate—to learn what socialism means and entails.
When the majority of a class would declare themselves to be socialist, I would offer to run the class along socialist principles, such as the mandate to take from the able and give to the needy. Specifically, I offered to grade the class on a sort of reverse-curve: Those with the highest GPAs would receive the lowest grades and those with the lowest GPAs would be given the highest grades. This would be one small step to level the playing field for those less endowed with academic ability or motivation. After all, those with less academic ability or motivation were surely the victims of a rigged system in which social factors including prior education and income inequality disadvantaged the many in favor of the privileged few.
This socialist grading scheme was invariably met with outrage, especially, if unsurprisingly, among high-performing students (who made up a disproportionate number of the self-declared socialists). Some would remind me that some things are simply meant to be a matter of merit. And I heard every argument imaginable for allowing fair competition to determine outcomes. Grades, it turned out, were a currency college kids could understand.
You get the same response among students if you offer them the prospect of taking the money that subsidizes their education and using it to feed people in developing nations. Surely the potential deprivation of the students is insignificant compared with that of the individuals to be fed. Students are quick to point out that things don’t work that way, which is true, but contrary to their socialist infatuation.
Students are attracted to socialism because they have no skin in the game. To some extent, the same applies to other young people who do not yet have a significant stake in the system. Capitalist beliefs quickly come to the surface when the young are no longer playing with funny money.
It is possible to show students that they really are not socialists by putting the question in a currency in which they have a stake. Alas, virtually no one at the modern university would think to do so—let alone bother. On most campuses, the faculty is more likely to encourage students in their socialist beliefs than to challenge them.
We should learn from Bernie Sanders’s success that allowing the glib socialism of the young to go unchallenged has consequences. It does the young no favors to foster in them biases that will only be corrected through decades of hard life-lessons.
Mark Pastin is president of the Council of Ethical Organizations in Alexandria, Virginia. His most recent book is Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action.