Advice for My Conservative Students

CreditSung Hyun Kim/ArtCenter

WATERVILLE, Me. — Conservative media outlets have built a cottage industry of outrage on the premise that conservative students are victims of a “tyrannical” campus left. I know this message well, because over a decade ago, as a conservative student at Bucknell, I helped devise and spread it.

I am now a much more liberal professor. In the early 2000s, as I watched conservatives embrace the Patriot Act after Sept. 11, reject marriage equality and insist on authority over women’s reproductive health decisions, the libertarian streak that brought me to conservatism began pulling me to the left. But I still care deeply for the liberty of my conservative students. For this reason I have some advice for those in college who are concerned about their freedom of speech.

I was a reasonably good-natured kid from a modest Catholic household when I showed up to my liberal arts campus. Then suddenly I wasn’t me, the individual. I was just white. It seemed that everyone was celebrating diversity and multiculturalism, and I didn’t see a role for myself in that. It occurred to me, as it has to countless other conservative students, that I might also be a kind of minority — an “ideological minority” — because of my conservative political views.

My fellow conservative students and I half-ironically borrowed the language of the multiculturalist left and applied it to ourselves. The left talked about women and students of color as victims of historical and institutional inequality because of things like patriarchy, slavery and Jim Crow. Most of us conservatives didn’t suffer from similar injustices, but we saw ourselves nevertheless as victims of ideological oppression.

I was pretty good at spreading this narrative, in large part because I had one of the loudest voices on campus. I edited the op-ed section of the student newspaper, participated in public speaking and debating events, and spoke out frequently in my classes (garnering more than a few eye-rolls). I wrote thousand-word essays on how the campus stifled free speech that were then published in college-funded newsletters. My Conservatives Club colleagues and I received national attention. Some were featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, and others got booked on popular TV shows like “The O’Reilly Factor.” In short, for an oppressed minority group whose speech was stifled, we had an awful lot of press.

What I’m getting at is that I was never a victim. My message to conservative students is that neither are you. The leaders and pundits who say otherwise are doing you a disservice. Sure, they’re getting a lot of clicks and selling ads by framing your struggle as one of an embattled minority silenced by the overbearing liberalism of academia, but that false equivalence is not helping you prepare for the wider world.

Outside of college, most people don’t care about what you care about — not because you’re a conservative but because you’re a person in a diverse world, ideologically and otherwise. The better you are at convincing people to care about what you care about, the more politically effective you will be. You know the world doesn’t love a victim. Don’t adopt a posture you disagree with just because it plays well in conservative media.

Exercising your voice is not forbidden, but it does take courage on a liberal campus. It won’t be easy and people will not always like you for it. In college, I was rejected by a girl specifically because I was conservative and that hurt, but not enough to justify silencing myself. If anything, it helped me better correct the left’s misconceptions about my beliefs.

I’m still very proud of the level of analysis and rigor I put into my work as a student. I may not have sharpened my skills in the same way if everyone agreed with me. You can and should be proud of good-faith political engagement. The point is: You have a voice and ideas that people need to hear, but don’t compare disagreement with your ideas to suppression.

Many conservative students denounced recent protests against the college tour of the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos as an attack on free speech. In all likelihood, those were protests against Mr. Yiannopoulos’s bullying and ridicule. A “conservative campus speaker” is not someone who belittles left-wing students, but whose visit is for teaching and learning. It is important you invite speakers to campus. We certainly did. But seek out the highly credentialed thinkers, like Walter Williams, Victor Davis Hanson or Yuval Levin.

Hostility to campus speakers will still come from the left. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education keeps a handy database of nationwide attempts to withdraw invitations to speakers, and 2016 was a record year. But almost a third of those attempts were directed at Mr. Yiannopoulos alone. That should be food for thought. Until you stop settling for what’s surely the satisfying release of Mr. Yiannopoulos’s deliberate and superficial antagonism, you can’t know whether it’s the actual conservatism that your fellow students have rejected.

If you take responsibility for the parts of your education you control, and focus your energy on learning, writing, speaking and debating (instead of shock-value pranks, appeals to victimhood or dismissal of academia at large), you will grow and succeed. You will also learn far more in the process than you do from feeding the campus-outrage beast or making fun of “snowflakes.”

Take the tremendous opportunity of a college education to sharpen your skills and deepen your knowledge. Read Edmund Burke, Matthew Arnold, Russell Kirk, Thomas Sowell, Michael Oakeshott and Peggy Noonan. Acknowledge arguments you disagree with on their own terms, and respond to their substance. For example, instead of claiming that regulating offensive Halloween costumes is stifling free speech, speak out with an argument about the value of “offensive” Halloween costumes. Your professors want you to learn the skills of written and oral argument. We will help and support you if you ask. Seriously, we will.

Put conservative ideas at the forefront of your politics, even if conservative leaders and icons have largely abandoned conservatism. In some ways your potential to make civil choices and to restore dignity to the Republican Party makes you the most crucial allies of those across the political spectrum who care about truth, honor, liberty and democracy.

My aspiration for all the students I teach who don’t agree with me is for them to become my most formidable interlocutors. If you don’t like this advice, consider it a prompt.

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