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How Colleges Are Shaping American Conservatism

Posted by Josh Rothman  September 5, 2012 01:37 PM

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Think of politics on a typical college campus, and you’re likely to think of liberal politics. Colleges, the conventional thinking goes, are naturally liberal places. To some conservative critics, they’re even hotbeds of liberal indoctrination—boot-camps at which liberal professors, still fighting the battles of the 1960s, use their influence and prestige to sway their students.

Perhaps because of their über-liberal image, not much has been written about how colleges might shape conservative students. That’s changed, though, with Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, by the sociologists Amy Binder and Kate Wood of UCSD. Binder and Wood spent an academic year talking with conservative students and alumni at two big universities: “Eastern Elite,” a prestigious private school on the East Coast, and “Western Public,” a vibrant state university in the American West. There are plenty of conservative students on campus, they found—and they are shaped by their universities, too, in fascinating ways that relate to our country’s political culture as a whole.

Conservative students, Binder and Wood find, aren’t the same at the two schools. At Eastern Elite, campus conservatives style themselves in the tradition of conservative intellectuals like Edmund Burke and William F. Buckley; they sponsor debates, assemble academic discussion groups, and write erudite editorials in campus publications. Conservative students at Western Public, by contrast, think of themselves as agitators and provacateurs. They enjoy making a splash and riling up the opposition by staging political demonstrations like “affirmative-action bake sales,” where white students are charged more for cookies and muffins than their minority peers. It’s a division that roughly mirrors the one that’s split the Republican Party as a whole.

Those different political styles, Binder and Wood argue, aren’t the result of some irreducible cultural factor—the difference between East Coast and Western students, say. Instead, they derive from clearly legible differences in the ways the two universities shape their students. Modeling, the sociologists write, is a big factor: at Eastern Elite, students are exposed to conservative professors who encourage them to “become versed in a more refined style of conservatism”; at Western Public, students are encouraged “to enter a more rough-and-tumble world of conservative politics, to imagine themselves as local pundits or politicians in their careers, and to think of liberals as adversaries, not future colleagues.” But other, structural factors are just as important. At Eastern Elite, for example, students live together for all four years, and, as a result of living in a tight-knit community, are hesitant to alienate one another over political differences; at Western Public, most students live off-campus, and so are more willing to push buttons. At Eastern Elite, class sizes tend to be smaller, giving students the sense that their professors listen to them; at Western Public, larger, more impersonal classes make conservative students feel left out of the conversation. And the wealthier Eastern Elite has more funding to spread among its student groups; at Western Public, where funding is less generous, conservative groups often feel under-supported as compared to their liberal competitors.

“Because these stylistic divisions are so relevant,” Binder and Wood write, “it’s important to look carefully at where they come from…. Political style is not simply a given; styles emerge and are shaped by people.” Ultimately, the political attitudes born on our college campuses go on to shape the national conversation. If we could make our universities more civil, their work suggests, then we might help our country become more civil, too.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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