Why is community dead: In which I blame colleges.


By any objective analysis, life in modern America is pretty darn good. You probably didn’t die in childbirth and neither did half of your children. You haven’t died of smallpox or polio. You probably haven’t lived through a famine or war. Cookies and meat are cheap, houses are big, most of us do rather little physical labor, and we can carry the collected works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Wikipedians in our pockets. We have novacaine for tooth surgery. If you avoid drugs and don’t eat too much, there’s a very good chance you’ll survive into your eighties.

Yet anxiety is skyrocketing.  Something about modern life doesn’t seem to agree with people.

In the past, people grew up in small towns or rural areas near small towns, knew most of the people in their neighborhoods, went to school, got jobs, and got married. They moved if they needed more land or saw opportunities in the gold fields, but most stayed put.
We know this because we can read about it in historical books.

One of the results was strong continuity of people in a particular place, and strong continuity of people allowed the development of those “civic associations” people are always going on about. Kids joined clubs at school, clubs at church, then transitioned into adult-aged clubs when they graduated. At every age, there were clubs, and clubs organized and ran events for the community.

Of course club membership was mediated by physical location–if you live in a town you will be in more clubs than if you live in the country and have to drive an hour to get there–but in general, life revolved around clubs (and church, which we can generously call another kind of club, with its own sub clubs.)

In such an environment, it is easy to see how someone could meet their sweetheart at 16, become a functioning member of society at 18, get a job, put a down payment on a house, get married by 20 or 22 and start having children.

Today, people go to college.

Forget your highschool sweetheart: you’re never going to see her again.

After college, people typically move again, because the job they’ve spent 4 years training for often isn’t in the same city as their college.

So forget all of your college friends: chances are you’ll never see any of them again, either.

Now you’re living in a strange city, full of strangers. You know no one. You are part of no clubs. No civic organizations. You feel no connection to anyone.

county-economic-status_fy2015_map“Isn’t diversity great?” someone crows over kebabs, and you think “Hey, at least those Muslims over there have each other to talk to.” Soon you find yourself envying the Hispanics. They have a community. You have a bar.

People make do. They socialize after work. They reconnect with old friends on Facebook and discover that their old friends are smug and annoying because Facebook is a filter that turns people smug and annoying.

But you can’t repair all of the broken connections.
Meanwhile, all of those small, rural towns have lost their young adults. Many of them have no realistic future for young people who stay; everyone who can leave, does. All that’s left behind are children, old people, and the few folks who didn’t quite make it into college.

The cities bloat with people who feel no connection to each other and small towns wither and die.

As the Guardian Reports: Why are so many people dying of opiate overdoses?:

Never mind the ‘war on drugs’ or laying all blame with pharmas, this epidemic exists because millions live in a world without hope, certainty and structure…

The number one killer of Americans under the age of 50 isn’t cancer, or suicide, or road traffic accidents. It’s drug overdoses. They have quadrupled since 1999. More than 52,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year. Even in the UK, where illegal drug use is on the decline, overdose deaths are peaking, having grown by 10% from 2015 to 2016 alone. …

Opioids, whatever their source, bond with receptors all over our bodies. Opioid receptors evolved to protect us from panic, anxiety and pain – a considerate move by the oft-callous forces of evolution. …

The overdose epidemic compels us to face one of the darkest corners of modern human experience head on, to stop wasting time blaming the players and start looking directly at the source of the problem. What does it feel like to be a youngish human growing up in the early 21st century? Why are we so stressed out that our internal supply of opioids isn’t enough? …

You get opioids from your own brain stem when you get a hug. Mother’s milk is rich with opioids, which says a lot about the chemical foundation of mother-child attachment. When rats get an extra dose of opioids, they increase their play with each other, even tickle each other. And when rodents are allowed to socialise freely (rather than remain in isolated steel cages) they voluntarily avoid the opiate-laden bottle hanging from the bars of their cage. They’ve already got enough. …

So what does it say about our lifestyle if our natural supply isn’t sufficient and so we risk our lives to get more? It says we are stressed, isolated and untrusting.

(Note: college itself is enjoyable and teaches people valuable skills. This thread is not opposed to “learning things,” just to an economic system that separates people from their loved ones.)

13 thoughts on “Why is community dead: In which I blame colleges.

  1. but look at it this way: you can fuck a lot more people now. Like, a LOT more people. Because they’re all strangers, but they’re strangers to each *other* as well, and strangers aren’t going to go around talking about how you fucked them and immediately left.

    and the type of person who wants us all to go to college and get good jobs is the type of person who considers fucking lots of people to be the good life.


  2. I guess it’s not only colleges, but an economic system that does not create jobs in rural towns (maybe inevitable) and a social system that create atomized cities. In addition, White people are individualistic so they don’t make friends easily.


  3. college (with a few exceptions for some STEM Courses) does not teach valuable skills. And when opportunity cost is taken into account of working and learning during that time period on the job, it’s a veritable disaster. It’s mostly signalling, not adding to human capital. A very bad equilibrium where everyone pursuing their individual interest to signal has led to horrible social outcome where young people waste years of their lives in a morally corrupting hedonistic environment that functions as a progressive seminar of sorts pumping out fanatics.

    Society would be far better off if 90% of people (yes, 90%) going to college didn’t. And all the unemployed professors were pumping gas. I’d go so far as to say the cost is so high that it might even be worth having NO ONE go to college, period. Just learn on the job.


  4. My parents removing us from our community when I was 7 years old left me really disgruntled. Flashbacks of homesickness inspired me to write this weird book:


  5. The problem is the same alienation exists in countries with different tertiary education systems, where it is more common to commute to a local college etc. People still move to the big cities because of the jobs and similar things. I just realized I will never own that kind of house that will be the home of the family for generations on and on. Most likely once kids move out we downsize. So owning is not really making us rooted, it is more like long-term renting combined with speculation. And I don’t live in America, albeit people move around a lot in Europe too, but not for college. It mostly the pursuit of jobs and status and entertainment.

    It happens because it became easy to move. And cheap. But there is another aspect. We all became too rich to need help from each other. How do you build a relationship with a neighbor? Borrow his lawnmover. Next time, help him paint his fence. This mutual help between relatively poor people brings them together. But now we hire laborers to paint the fence and everybody has their own lawnmover. We just chat with neighbors. Same with friends in other parts of the city. We get together to chat. We don’t sweat our butts off helping them move, they will just hire a moving crew.

    Every real bonding I have with someone was over going through some kind of shit together. Living comfortable, not needing help and just getting together for chatting does not make people bond.


  6. “Many of them have no realistic future for young people who stay;”

    This is key. I’ve had many conversations about how people just flit about and don’t stay put from agrarian style conservatives and they don’t realize that you can’t have “community” with no jobs and no women.

    Plus, let’s be honest, huge swathes of this country are just not great places to live if you have any spark or ambition at all. The original reason for many of these communities was because they WERE a good deal once upon a time. It was a great place for cheap land, or other resources, and you could really make a life for yourself. Now it’s just rotting small towns in not terribly attractive physical surroundings. No money, no culture, the women have all left, not infrequently before the men do.

    If college hadn’t lured them away, other things would have, my own father wasn’t the first guy from such a time to bail by joining the military.

    I understand nostalgia, I really do. I also think there’s a certain amount of reflexive, defensive, pride like you see in Southerners (of which I am one) or people from New Jersey. We’re not really honest that some places are just uninspiring economic and social suck holes. Not just small towns either.


  7. This is not a new issue. I also think the people who ramble on about this problem are not sincere about actually addressing it. Intelligent young people have aspirations. They seek opportunity and openness. Often times that can only happen by leaving your hometown and going to places like California and Texas with their growth-oriented industries. This paradox can never be completely resolved. If you don’t want bright young people leaving their hometowns for greater opportunities elsewhere, you need to bring the opportunities to them. Hand Wringing about this issue without discussing methods of bringing opportunities to the people who want them seems rather pointless and silly to me.


  8. Most of the time I nod while reading your blog. Not this time. Yes, going to college is part of it (and probably more so than in Europe). But the root cause is that the economy of today is different from the good old days. And it’s a kind of Red Queen situation – if you don’t play the game you automatically lose. Also, it’s not that obvious when you are still in your 20s, career progress and adventures are more important. As many other things in modern life it feels unsustainable and heading for cataclysmic disasters (again, more pronounced here in the US). No Jeffersonian democracy for us I’m afraid. I’m sure you at least heard about https://www.amazon.com/Hillbilly-Elegy-Memoir-Family-Culture/dp/0062300547 which is essentially a poetic retelling of the same regret.


    • After more consideration, colleges are probably at worst only part of the problem. The fact that land was historically the source of income for most people and now isn’t is probably a much bigger one.


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