When a young conservative arrives on a college campus, a few things become almost immediately evident. Somewhere between the diversity workshops claiming structural racism, Welcome Week hate-speech-policy lectures, and your first day in the classroom requiring introductions by name and gender identity, it may feel like the entire structure of the university is bent against you, and in a way, it is. As at any institution, there are expected mores and methods to conduct oneself on the grounds of your school of choice. Rarely (excepting Liberty, Hillsdale, and a few others) do schools of higher learning actively support being a God-fearing, small-government-admiring Buckley-ite. As much as we conservatives may gnash our teeth about this being the way of things — calling for higher ed to come crashing down — young people are incentivized to attend university, and some of the best schools are steeped in progressive politics. Grumbling about it won’t change anything in the short term.
Observing the realities of the university when it comes to sex, race, and politics, a young conservative man or woman has three choices to make: bend the knee, be silent, or speak up. Each is more difficult to do than the last.
The young conservative may capitulate and go along with the flow, eventually embracing left-wing thinking. Indeed, this is the fear of many parents and relatives when their baby goes off to college. The young man leaves with a copy of the NIV and returns lauding the materialism of Marx. While certainly a cliché, it happens often enough to be a rational fear of those who care for a college-bound man or woman.
Another option for a young conservative, especially one who wishes to retain friendships while not casting aside one’s ideals, may be to disengage from political topics entirely — instead, choosing a polite expression and saying naught when any matter of fractiousness arises. Unfortunately, this monastic action is challenging to maintain because of the Left’s mantra that “silence is violence”; i.e., you must actively support by voice and action progressive agendas, or it is construed that you disagree with them.
In the capitulatory and quiet conservatives’ defense, when the social aspect of college is omnipresent — living in close proximity with others, tight peer groups, and little outside exposure — there is every incentive imaginable to be agreeable.
For those who speak up, there are various costs. You are unlikely to have many friends, you will have some papers come back that are graded more harshly than your peers’ work, and you must wrestle with the temptation to set aside proprietary and good manners, opting for caustic obnoxiousness in their stead.
Most outspoken young conservatives have been the latter at some point, myself included. It’s a stage for some and permanent for others. Sporting a “Socialism is for F*gs” shirt from Louder with Crowder, with an unread copy of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government or Hayek’s Road to Serfdom under one’s arm, and drinking from the ever-flowing font that is The Daily Wire’s Leftist Tears (hot or cold) tumbler, we strut into class to bicker with the professor for the umpteenth time. While each of these is amusing and/or useful, be cautious of this being the totality of your outreach on campus.
It is easy to call to mind “Ben Shapiro Thug Life” moments — with Shapiro rhetorically dunking on gaping undergrads — and desire to recreate these scenes in class and around campus. But remember that Shapiro is an extraordinarily well-read and gentlemanly individual. Listen to his Sunday Special, and these attributes shine through. Much the same with Crowder. Outside of his outrageous stage persona, Crowder is a thoughtful and intentional Christian. To be like these two takes more than aping their quips; it requires perseverance, compassion, and robust intellectual foundations.
A way to test if you’re leaning into trolling is to observe the other students when you raise your hand. If every other person in the room rolls his or her eyes or looks exasperated, you’re laying it on too thick. Without knowing it, you’ve become the Left’s stereotype of a conservative — unempathetic, needlessly contrarian, and pig-headed.
“But Luther!” you cry, “you cannot conceive of all the left-wing nonsense my peers and professors spout in class! How can I not say something?” Because two people making asses of themselves is not the way to win the third-party observer to your side. I, too, have been in classes where students offer revolution as the answer to racial inequality, have sat there as a professor claimed that FDR’s policies single-handedly arrested the Great Depression, and have listened as the supposedly unique evils of America’s founding are enumerated by the speaker. Are they all wrong or misrepresenting the truth? Yep. Is it frustrating? Yep. Deal with it.
We student conservatives can fall into the same victim mentality as the Left. We pity ourselves because we are outnumbered and unwanted. Because of this perceived victimhood, we can feel vindicated in obnoxious behavior. I beg you to set aside that mentality. Most students in your classes, while tossing out vague, progressive talking points, have not decided where they fall politically. The best thing you can do to win them to your side is to act graciously. Much as when evangelizing, we win more arguments by being kind and generous than we do by rhetoric.
From my anecdotal experience, the dirty secret about college bias is that 5 percent of the student body and 10 percent of faculty make up the activist class. The rest of the college students and professors are just going along to get along, fearing being called out by the activist set. So while it feels like the world is pressing in around you, it’s not. Let me offer ways to maintain cordial relationships, acquit ourselves respectably, and achieve better discourse without being seen as irredeemable jackwagons.
The best way to have your views considered by ostensible opponents is to take their proposals and mentally dissect them for the underlying motivations. For example, another student says we should raise the minimum wage to $23.23. The temptation is to scoff and rattle off AEI statistics about what such a proposal would do to small businesses and the likely contraction of entry-level jobs. We wouldn’t be incorrect, but we’d be missing the deeper question: “How do we elevate those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum?” Because this question is what motivates the other student’s half-baked proposal.
A better answer would be to acknowledge what the other party wishes to accomplish. We might say, “I, too, would like to see upward mobility for the poor. While so-and-so’s motivation is commendable, there may be less economically damaging ways of accomplishing that very goal.” We can then list free-market strategies to reduce poverty while in no way diminishing the laudable concerns of the other student. Be kind, do your homework, and know when is a good time to speak up. You cannot fix an entire university, but you can be an affable representative of conservative ideals.
For parents and students looking at colleges, I would suggest frank discussions about where the best fit is. The intellectual and theological maturity of a student should be considered foremost when applying to schools, far more than an essentially arbitrary ranking. For those conservative students already at left-wing institutions, as I am, try to get an economics or political-philosophy class every semester. Those departments are ideologically diverse and much more welcoming of conservative and libertarian views. These classes can act as a respite from your otherwise progressive class schedule, and there’s a high probability you’ll find like-minded peers — potential friends — in those departments. Together, these steps can help make your campus years a joy.