Guest Post: Isaiah Schrader and the Pressure to Conform on Campus
A Harvard PhD student on his early flirtation with radical ideas, why they spread like mono thru the student body, and whether pro-Pal activists are antisemitic or simply addicted to protesting
When it comes to our views on the carnage in Israel and Palestine, most of us are captive to our chosen news feeds, programmed as they are not to deescalate the rhetoric but to whip up horror at what the "other side" is doing. I certainly am. Maybe you are too.
In an effort to look past today’s enraging video or questionable meme, I will occasionally be turning over my Substack to people who have differing points of view and experiences.
Today’s interview is with a Harvard student whose early interest in progressive ideology was fully torpedoed after October 7. Next up: a letter from a resident of an Israeli settlement south of Jerusalem. “I felt my belt to be sure I have the extra magazine for my Glock,” he wrote, of venturing out to a restaurant last week with his wife, their first time since the attack.
The Conflict at Home: Isaiah Shrader and the Pressure on Campus to Conform
I’m a PhD student at Harvard in Chinese history, but I did a master's here so, it's my third year here. Before that I was an undergraduate at Yale. I've seen, or been in the middle of, a lot of these campus moments where it feels like there's been a real paradigm shift, an ideological shift kind of going on around us.
I'm from New York, from Westchester. My family has typical liberal Jewish views on Israel. Like 95% of Jews, we criticize Likud and Netanyahu, but support the idea of the State of Israel. I went to Trinity, an Episcopalian high school on the Upper West Side that had more Jews than Episcopalians.
People talk about what happens on college campuses. I think there are a few misconceptions. People look at the ideas that professors have - like the Yale professor who went viral a couple of weeks ago for that insane tweet - and assume that students get their ideas from their professors; that they're taught postmodernism and critical race theory and things like that. I think the way these ideas are transmitted and enforced is actually horizontal instead of vertical. There's immense social pressure when you step onto one of these campuses. You make friends and you're in Facebook groups and following people on social media. In just daily conversations with the people you're meeting and living with, there's immense pressure to conform on all prominent political issues. And the way these ideas are presented to you, is with a matter of clear-cut morality. “This is the upstanding view to have." You could go through an education at one of these schools and never take a class that has anything with race or the new ideas that we see all the time, but you'll still get them because of social pressure, and it comes from other students.
I also think there’s another misconception about how college campuses work. Nobody likes the deans or the presidents. Your teacher says, 'This is right, and this is the book that you should read." It doesn't mean all the kids are going to believe that or buy into it, because the teacher's not cool. I don't think that there's really any relationship between ideas that college students or graduate students have, and what administrators want. College presidents are making statements, now, "We are going to try to get people not to endorse Hamas." But there's nothing they can do about that in any real way. I can't think of a policy change or a speech that they could give, which would have any effect on what people really believe on a grassroots level. They do make accommodations, though, and you can argue that there's a little bit of a vicious cycle that happens where college administrators make accommodations for students. The students get their way; they learn to do it again.
When I got to campus [at Yale], I joined a debating and discussion society that was going through a shift, from being a classically liberal, with a lowercase L, space, to one that became leftist. I thought it was interesting and new at the time and wanted to see what it was about. And for a while I was kind of convinced by these new ideas. This was 2017, so these were kind of the vanguard, kids who were having the discussions about abolish the police three years before that became very, very mainstream.
I got to see up close how persuasive it was to be surrounded by students who you liked. You want to be very taken in with their ideas and you want to fit in. And maybe you don't do a lot of research. You repeat the slogans and you learn, "From the river to the sea," and you become a supporter of BDS, and you want to abolish the police and abolish prisons. And you're living on a college campus where all of your needs are met and you're promised a great life ahead of you with a degree from a place like Yale. You're very disconnected from anything concrete.
Now, I think a lot people came in with ideas that were much more diverse than when they came out. All of these elite schools, they prioritize diversity of background in students. So yes, there are a lot of kids from New York and Boston, but there are also people coming from Alabama, from Appalachia, from Alaska who've never been to the East Coast before. They didn't go to Trinity. They're conservatives coming in, they're moderates, they're people with really nuanced views and interesting backgrounds.
But when they get to campus, maybe those students in particular want to adopt the elite ideas that the older students already have; that the students who went to fancy private schools in big cities have. Once these ideas are there, I think they spread so quickly because they were elite ideas and they were always packaged as having a very clear-cut moral position. If you’re claiming to be the moral person, it becomes easy to stigmatize people who disagree, people who dissent: they're the racist, they're the Islamophobes, they're whatever the topic is.
I started Yale as an undergraduate in 2017, when one of the big pushes on campus was to abolish the police. I was taken in by these ideas for a while. I'm not really so much of a social person, so it wasn't about popularity, it was about, "I'm friends with these people and I look up to them. I think they're smart intellectually, they read books, they say interesting things. "And it was kind of new to me. My parents are real classical liberals, Jewish New Yorkers. So it was interesting and a little bit cool.
But I never bought in fully. There was always part of me which thought, something's not quite right here. Abolishing prisons, abolishing police, none of this really seems to make sense. I started to question it probably within a year or so. And then in a minor way, I was "canceled" early in the pandemic. They sent students home in March and there was a burst of activism. Everyone was home and wanted to abolish grades for that semester and have everyone pass - which Yale ended up doing. And I said something on Facebook like, “This is kind of strange and maybe some people still want to get grades for the work that they've done and maybe you don't have to buy into whatever popular ideas are going around.” And it got 1000 comments: I was racist and I was classist because there were people in more adverse circumstances than I. I know it sounds kind of silly, but it was a bit of a mask-off moment, not because the ideas there were so important, but because it was an illustration of the virality of these ideas.
There's something called The Yale Bubble, because it's a rich campus in the middle of a poor working-class city. And I think I definitely knew that these were not ideas that would play in a national election. I even started to realize that these ideas were not always popular among the majority of students, but you couldn't say that. People could have private views and talk with a close circle of friends. But in the public sphere, whether that's writing posts on social media or having big discussions that are open on campus or in classrooms, people are afraid that their friends, their acquaintances, their classmates will look down upon them or think that they're cruel or unkind and immoral. That public pressure extends to what people say publicly; privately they'll say something different. There is a situation where they are true believers and there are people who are willing to go along.
I've have had conversations [since] with people about things like prison abolition or police abolition. I was talking to a friend who's a historian of prisons. He's doing a postdoc here; he's read the theory. I asked him, "You talk about redefining what is criminal and redefining the role of prisons, but don't you think that there's still going to be people who do bad things? Don't you think that even in a society where the socialist revolution has come and everyone is equal in terms of their material background, that there still to be people who do bad things out of jealousy or passion or hatred? What do we do about those people?" And it was like he never thought about that. Any person on the street would be able to give these objections in an argument, but it was like he had never considered the most obvious ones.
I think it's that way for a lot of people. They have these blind spots that emerge because the ideology is so morally totalizing; the good and bad. And because the Israelis are the settler colonists - so they say - therefore, any form of resistance, even violence is good. And the most obvious questions, the injection of humanity into the discussion is brushed away.
Antisemitism on Campus…