I didn’t appreciate that as much as I should have until I transferred for sophomore year to a big university in the Northeast. On that campus, I couldn’t find anyone taking the Republican side. Dorm debates about the election were dead. I missed them.
Many people feel the same today about what appears to be a lack of insult-free campus discussions of our political differences. Some educators are trying to revive that tradition. Princeton University legal scholar and political philosopher Robert P. George describes his efforts in a chapter of a new collection of essays, “How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools.”
Other than my resistance to using smartphones and social media, I’m not a conservative. But I have friends who are. I enjoy talking to them and reading their articles. One surprising way Princeton is providing more viewpoint diversity is the joint seminar that George, a traditional conservative, conducts with Harvard University philosopher Cornel West, a democratic socialist. George said their sessions expose students to reasonable perspectives on divisive issues that neither their students, nor sometimes the professors themselves, had considered before.
George founded and directs Princeton’s James Madison Program. It was created 19 years ago to encourage sharing of opposing views on sensitive issues. George said similar programs have begun or are being considered at the University of Chicago, Harvard University, Duke University, Johns Hopkins University and other places.
At the James Madison Program, he said, “we have among our faculty members and students many different types — Burkean traditionalists, libertarians, neoconservative, religious and social conservatives, fusionists, Trump supporters, Never Trumpers, you name it.”
When George arrived at Princeton 34 years ago, he did not hold back in expressing his antiabortion and pro-traditional marriage opinions. “I had faculty colleagues who had unorthodox views and were willing to join me in expressing them in various forums,” he said.
I asked current Occidental undergraduates if the campus still has the free-flowing political debates I remember. Apparently not.
“Our Republican Club disbanded a year or two ago, and I’d only be able to name a handful of students who are outspokenly conservative,” said Emily Jo Wharry, a senior editor at the student newspaper, the Occidental. Nina Srdic Hadzi-Nesic, president of Associated Students of Occidental College, said, “There doesn’t seem to be much, or any, debate between those who like Trump and those who don’t.”
Yet such discussions can occur between people who know and trust each other. Kyler Parris, the kicker on the football team, said he is “quite far to the left,” but he and the team’s punter, a conservative, have intense conversations while the rest of the team is practicing.
Derek Shearer, professor of diplomacy and director of the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs, has been on the Occidental faculty since 1981. He arrived just after an undergraduate from Hawaii named Barack Obama transferred to Columbia University. I have found no accounts of the future president’s chats with Occidental Republicans, but Shearer said I was wrong to put such emphasis on partisan debates.
“Political discourse at Oxy in the ’80s and ’90s and today is similar in that it focuses on issues, not parties and candidates,” he said. “It is not binary.” He said students and faculty find they differ in thoughtful ways on issues such as racism, the economy, sexual harassment, sexual identity, divestment, and Shearer’s specialty, the United States’ role in the world.
Yet, I was a government major and would like to hear more talk on campus about American elections and politics. I was happy to be surrounded by young Republicans that year at Oxy. As I have been taught, political parties change. That balance I once enjoyed may return.
In the meantime, professors like George try to do what supporters of 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater — some of whom I knew — once did. Undergraduates “come to us already in groupthink,” he said. “Schools need to teach students to question dominant or prevailing opinion among peers and in their communities.”
That was good for me when I was 19. It led to useful changes of mind as I grew older. All of us, of every age, could use some of that in the new year.