WASHINGTON: So you’re going to college. Congratulations! You’re in for the ride of a lifetime! It’s an exciting ride, terrifying and dangerous. The good news is that you can manage most of the danger. The bad news is that threats will come from people who don’t know you, don’t care about you, and who you won’t see coming before they hit your life like a wrecking ball.
You’ve probably heard that colleges are hotbeds of radical liberalism. College teachers are all liberals, maybe even socialists. College campuses are hostile to your beliefs. You’ll be mocked if you’re conservative, Christian, or a white, cis-gender, heterosexual male. You’re Daniel walking into the lions’ den, a kulak in the hands of the Bolsheviks.
Well, not all colleges are the same. Some schools are moderately conservative; others are wildly liberal. Your experience will be different at the U.S. Naval Academy than it will be at Wellesley. The faculty at Texas A&M might be mostly Democrats, but Columbia Democrats make Aggie Democrats look reactionary.
There’s some good news …
The good news is that in general, campus life for conservatives isn’t that bad. It’s true that college profs lean strongly left. A study of 51 top liberal arts colleges found that Democrats outnumber Republicans on the faculty by 10.4 to 1. At the U.S. Naval Academy, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2.3 to 1. At Wellesley, the ratio is over 120 to 1. Thirty-nine percent of these colleges have no Republicans on their faculty at all.
But it’s also true that in many classes, it just won’t matter. When you do calculus, ideology is irrelevant. Planck’s constant is the same, whether measured by a man or a woman, an Arab or a Jew. The Krebs cycle is a non-gendered, race-neutral process, and the laws of thermodynamics are unaffected by identity politics.
In engineering, Democrats outnumber Republicans on the faculty 1.6 to 1. In physics, math, and chemistry, the ratio is about 6 to 1. And it doesn’t matter.
… and some okay news.
Outside of STEM subjects, things are trickier. Teaching in history, political science, social sciences, and linguistics are all susceptible to political bias. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans in political science departments is 8 to 1. That could in principle affect the quality of your education. It probably won’t affect your treatment in the classroom. The bias will often be unconscious, but they’ll also be subtle and hard for you to identify. You’ll just have to work harder to understand the biases in your education, and knowing that, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Humanities departments are dominated by leftists; in departments of religion, Democrats outnumber Republicans 70 to 1. But whether your Spanish prof is a socialist or a Falangist, she still expects you to learn the subjunctive mood. Your conservatism puts you at no disadvantage in learning the Russian genitive case.
More to the point, most college professors try to keep their politics out of their teaching. Few of them went to the trouble of earning doctoral degrees and fighting for tenure because they wanted to indoctrinate undergrads. Many of them will make snide remarks about Reagan and Thatcher, and they’re often prone to suddenly fret about Trump and fascism. But they usually get back on task, and your grade won’t suffer because you scowled rather than nodding approvingly.
The bad news …
The social sciences and history offer other problems. The faculty and students in these departments also lean strongly left, and these subjects are easily approached from an ideological perspective. However, these are real disciplines with solid, intellectually rigorous content. You’ll have a hard time avoiding ideological biases here, but it’s possible to take a principled stand and defend it.
Here’s the key: Listen carefully to what others are saying, then respond using facts and logic. Make sure that your facts are real facts: check their provenance, look for solid supporting evidence. Then be prepared to have your logic prodded and shaken by people who have played this game for more years than you’ve been alive. Be prepared to go back to the drawing board and rework your argument. Defend your position with tenacity, but also with integrity and respect.
… and the ugly.
Where you’re most likely to run into classroom trouble is in gender studies and post-modern literary theory. Avoid those like the plague. Conservatives have as much business in those classes as drug dealers at a rehab camp. If you’re forced to take one as part of a literature major, that’s unfortunate. Don’t argue with your professor or fellow students. They won’t listen to you, they don’t care what you have to say, and you won’t change anyone’s mind. Just keep your mouth closed and your head down. Anything else will be considered “mansplaining” or abusive, and you’ll be accorded no mercy no matter how hard you stick to facts, logic, and common courtesy.
The problem isn’t what you say, but who you are.
If you do your work and treat your profs and fellow students with respect, you should be just fine. Your conservatism won’t hurt you. You will find your beliefs under constant liberal assault, but you’re not in college for affirmation that your beliefs are correct.
You’re there to challenge and test them, to find where your logic and intuition are weak, and to strengthen them.
In that regard, conservatives often have more to gain from college than liberals do. If you’re constantly told that your beliefs are correct, and if your classes are echo chambers for your ideology, you’re less likely to grow. Growth comes from challenge and resistance, not from coddling.
But you have to be an active participant in your own maturation process. You can’t afford to be passive. If you get into a discussion about politics, know what you’re talking about. Get your news from more than one source, and learn to fact check information before sharing it. And don’t parrot someone else’s talking points.
Your biggest challenges won’t be in class.
In fact, your biggest challenges are likely to come from social settings. They won’t come from your profs, but from your fellow students, and even from administrators. And if something bad happens, it may well be that you put yourself in harm’s way, digging your own grave.
You’re between classes, or at a party, or in the cafeteria. You tell a joke, a harmless one that most people would think is funny. Or you congratulate yourself on your own looks or athletic prowess. Perhaps you invite a classmate out for coffee or express a religious view on marriage.
The next thing you know, the Title IX office is accusing you of sexual harassment. You’re denounced as a racist or a homophobe. Administrators are threatening to kick you out of school. What happened?
- You really did say something racist, harassing, or threatening. That’s on you.
- You were misunderstood.
- You misjudged your audience.
Number 3 is a common problem, whatever you actually said. At home, you’re surrounded by people who know you. They’ve known you for years. They understand where you’re coming from because they’ve been there themselves. If they don’t love you, they probably like you. And because they know you, they interpret your words with generosity.
Administration only pretends to like you.
That changes in college. There you’ll encounter people who don’t know you, don’t care about you, and have judged you as defective for your gender, your race, your religion and your politics. They’ll treat you with less generosity than they’d treat a pedophile. Because their view of the world is fundamentally political, they care about power relationships, not people. These are people who’ll destroy you as casually as you’d step on an ant. They’re angry and resentful.
Don’t expect rationality or a sense of humor from them. Even professional, liberal comedians won’t do shows in front of them any more, and when it comes to humor, you’re an amateur. Follow Jerry Seinfeld’s lead; never, ever tell jokes around them.
But it’s not just misfired humor that will hurt you. Campus administrators are deeply worried about sexual assault and harassment on campus. Especially against women and the LGBT community. And if you get in trouble on that score, it won’t be because you’re a conservative. The odds are that it will be because you were drinking.
College students drink, even bright, rational conservatives. Just remember, alcohol makes you stupid. No one can save you from your own stupidity.
Be careful and be safe, but have fun.
College is as safe an environment for conservatives as Yellowstone is for hikers. There are obvious dangers that you can avoid. Don’t jump into a hot pool, and don’t jump into gender studies. There are less obvious dangers that you can reasonably anticipate. You stay on the Yellowstone paths so you don’t plunge through the ground into a hidden thermal feature. You don’t submit op-eds to the campus newspaper without checking them over several times, then having someone else look over them too.
Then there are dangers that you know are there, but you have to risk them if you want to fully enjoy the experience. Hikers know that there are bears and mountain lions in the park, but there are spectacular vistas that only hikers will ever see. So don’t hike alone, be alert, carry any legal defensive items you can, and be ready to play dead, climb a tree, punch a bear in the nose, or just run faster than your companions.
The same strategies work with campus grizzlies.
Corpus Christi College By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34183032
Brizzly Bear: By National Park Service – https://www.nps.gov/npgallery/GetAsset/F2B2A83F-155D-451F-677A759EC80C3674?, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70982723