From Lust to Enlightenment

This essay, by Sam Hieb, is the latest installment of a Clarion Call special series, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” which offers different perspectives of the college experience. Hieb is a freelance journalist based in Greensboro, N.C., and edits a popular blog about the Triad region called “Piedmont Publius.” He received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in History from UNC-Greensboro.

All it took for me to figure that I’d like four years at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro was one trip to the cafeteria. And it wasn’t because the food was so good.

It was the girls. They were everywhere, in numbers that I’d never seen, even growing up in a city like Raleigh. I knew UNCG had once been a woman’s college, considering the fact that my mother (Class of ’56) was an alumna. But it didn’t dawn on me that a mere 20 years later, the school would still be predominantly populated with women. Dropping out never entered my mind. If anything, I would plan on going to graduate school—and I did.

I apologize if this starts out sounding a little like Animal House. There is more to the story. An excellent education at a great value ($1200 for room and board in the early 1980s) went along with the active social scene at UNCG. No matter how many late hours I spent drinking 50-cent Little Kings at the Ale House, trying to impress coeds with my knowledge of Albrecht Duhrer, I hardly ever skipped class the following morning. UNCG had quality professors who made class interesting and thought-provoking, and I always wanted more.

In fact, sociology professor Paul Luebke, now a liberal mainstay member of the General Assembly, helped complete my conversion to conservatism. Luebke was somewhat amused when I recently I told him about his role. I also told him I appreciated the way he presented information in class in an unbiased manner and let his students decide for themselves what they did with it.

I took two courses from Luebke, one in graduate school. Although mostly we read about the exciting student protests of the 1960s, as viewed by writers such as Godfrey Hodgson and James Miller, Luebke also assigned Thomas Edsall’s The New Politics of Inequality, which described a Democratic Party shifting more toward the right. In Edsall’s view, slick newcomers were taking over and raising money was displacing serious policy geared toward helping the middle and lower classes.

Edsall’s theory fell right in line with the 1992 presidential election. Here we had George H.W. Bush, the Reagan holdover, running against an exciting new face in national politics, Bill Clinton. Baby boomers were relishing the thought of a Sixties president. But as I observed the race, the first one in which I was truly informed, I sensed something was wrong. Edsall seemed to be right.

(In fact, Edsall’s theory has also played out in recent presidential elections, where Democratic candidates have been wealthy, Ivy-League educated elites.)

I voted for the Republican candidate in 1992, something I thought I would have never done when I entered college six years earlier. Clinton’s blatant cronyism (including putting his wife in charge of socializing our healthcare system) was the last straw. Enough of this Sixties stuff, I told myself. I was ready for some core principles. “Passion, idealism and folly” just weren’t cutting it any more.

Thanks to Dr. Luebke and other UNCG professors, I had the background to identify and build on those core principles. One of my first classes was a team course taught by history professor Karl Schleunes and classics professors Mark Smith-Soto and the late J. Douglas Minyard. Minyard was like a standup comic spinning stories about Plato and Aristotle, making them sound like, in the language of the times, a couple of really cool dudes.

English professor Donald Darnell, who taught my very first college class, introduced me to Thomas Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. My chemistry professor, the late David Knight, was one of the finest teachers I’ve ever had, period. Knight would explain the chemistry labs clearly and concisely, walking us through each step, telling us not to worry, we had plenty of time to complete the experiment.

At graduate school, history professor Paul Mazgaj taught me about the role of intellectuals in the political arena in Early Modern Europe, explaining that the relationship between government and man was a delicate one from the very beginning. His colleague William Link, who’s now at the University of Florida and who just completed a well-received biography on Jesse Helms, encouraged me to write my seminar paper on Edward Kidder Graham Jr., the son of famed UNC president Edward Kidder Graham who served as UNCG chancellor from 1950-1956. I became fascinated with the history of the UNC system and how modern universities work.

Is there anything I would do differently? Sure. I would make myself more aware of the world around me so I could challenge my professors. No matter how solid their teaching methods, there is always another point of view out there, another way to approach a particular subject. I’m sure my professors would have appreciated the challenge, for it would have caused them to think more differently about some of their long-held assumptions. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t have the intellectual fortitude at the time.

When I was in college there were no personal computers, no Internet, no Fox News, no blogs. It’s no excuse, as plenty of brilliant students before me got along fine without the modern tools to which I had access at the time. Even so, students today have incredible resources to help keep them informed about the world, not just to do their research papers. While I hope they appreciate fine lectures given by their instructors, I also hope they’re asking themselves if there’s another point of view out there somewhere.

Besides, girls like a guy who’s in tune with the real world.