When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s at an elite liberal arts college, my anthropology professor assigned me as a paper topic, “Why do nearly all the students in the college wear blue jeans?” It was a surprisingly tough question. Looking around, virtually every student at the all-male college was wearing Levis or Wranglers. (The upscale brands had not yet arrived.) But it was useless to ask my fellow students why. They just did. Their motivation lay somewhere in the cultural background. Jeans signaled youthful rebellion against the attire of our parents; jeans were still a bit counter-culture; jeans gave this small, very privileged group of students a symbolic identification with blue-collar workers; jeans had a more distant resonance with the rugged individualism of the Gold Rush and the Wild West. But none of those connections could explain why everybody was wearing the same thing.
The unofficial dress code also offered the comfort of conformity. Among students who saw themselves as fiercely individualistic prevailed a similarly fierce determination to dress exactly alike.
Conformity is a more powerful force in social life, though we are more apt to see it at a distance than to see it in ourselves. Forty years after my reckoning with the cult of denim on a shady campus in Mainline Philadelphia, I took up the anthropological examination of another small, leafy nook of the liberal arts archipelago. In What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students, my co-author Michael Toscano and I attempted to picture in its entirety the culture of that highly regarded college in coastal Maine.
What we found was conformity that was more than jeans deep. Students at Bowdoin agree with one another with a zeal that can seem to an outsider almost pathological. On many topics–racial preferences, sustainability, gay marriage, world citizenship, patriarchy, harassment, sexual freedom–there is room on campus for only one opinion. The very few who have broken this unstated rule have been quickly cut down to size. Bowdoin, for example, recently found a pretext to terminate a couple who had served quietly for nearly a decade as advisors to an evangelical Christian group. They broke no rules and occasioned no complaints, but Bowdoin just couldn’t bear the idea that people in a minor position of authority might hold opinions on homosexuality that diverged from the campus orthodoxy. They were presented with an “agreement” that they could not sign without violating their faith, and on that basis, the college dismissed them.
If that sounds something like what happened to Brendan Eich, the ex-CEO of Mozilla, there is good reason. We have entered a cultural moment in which angry censoriousness increasingly prevails over self-restraint and toleration. A cascade of recent incidents has caught the attention of several observers. In the space of a few days, Charles Krauthammer, Victor Davis Hanson, and Ross Douthat, all three citing the Mozilla case, took note of the new vindictiveness. Krauthammer observed the spread of “the totalitarian impulse” from campus to the mainstream. Hanson wrote of the “noble goals” that are now cited to hound “people with different views.” Douthat cited Brandeis University’s sniveling decision to cancel the honorary degree it had intended to bestow on Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an instance of campus “dogmas” triumphing over the “spirit of free expression.”
Which is to say that Bowdoin College has lots of company. The boa constrictor of campus conformity has been tightening its grip for a while. Liberal arts colleges have increasingly become places where students learn how to polish the edge of a polemical ax. They justify mob takeovers of a president’s office (Dartmouth), a trustees meeting (Swarthmore), or an invited speaker (Columbia, Brown). And all too many agree with Sandra Korn, the Harvard student who a few months ago boldly declared that academic freedom is just an impediment to achieving social justice. This is a species of conformity rooted in carefully nurtured grievances, expressive anger, and a delight in displays of force. It doesn’t auger well for the country that the coming generation of graduates of top-notch colleges have this much contempt for opinions other than their own.
This is more than the old political correctness. It has an air of triumph mixed with moral disdain for anyone who isn’t on board.
Bowdoin students, by the way, dress more in LL Bean than in ’49er denim. That is, when they are dressed at all. A current exhibition put on by the Women’s Resource Center displays more than 150 Bowdoin women showing their all in “Celebrating Women, Celebrating Bodies.” Probably no single Bowdoin student would have done this, but add the dynamics of group-think, and the idea becomes a daring expression of “individuality.” We should never underestimate the power of conformity.