Eyeing Campus Conservatives

Among the Pope Center’s complaints about higher education is that professors devote much of their time to research that adds little or nothing to our understanding of the world, and does so in tedious detail and ponderous prose. (This Calvin & Hobbes cartoon nails that point.)

The recently published Becoming Right by Amy Binder (associate professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego) and Kate Wood (a doctoral candidate there) is based on the authors’ research at two unnamed campuses—“Western Public” and “Eastern Elite.” It doesn’t matter, but a blogger has revealed that the two are the University of Colorado system and Harvard.

What Binder and Wood find from their research is that conservative-minded students who are enrolled at Harvard tend to behave somewhat differently than conservative-minded students enrolled in the Colorado system. They develop differing “political styles” in that some sorts of activity that are fairly common in Colorado are disdained by Harvard students and some common Harvardian activities are infrequently employed by Colorado students.

If you are thinking, “Who would have thought otherwise?” join the club. The book strikes me as another of those academic research projects that proves the obvious.

Proving the obvious, however, can have its rewards for academics. Getting a book published is a big deal for many disciplines, with professional and pecuniary advantages. A great many scholarly books amount to taking a bit of research and puffing it up into a book that purports to make important findings. In this instance, the authors interviewed a tiny number of students who described themselves as conservative at each of the two institutions (22 in the Colorado system and 24 at Harvard) and then tried to weave a tapestry out of those few threads. 

The resulting book is nearly 400 pages, but as Calvin said, “The purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity.”

Binder and Wood claim to “demonstrate that conservative students on any given campus share unique, local repertoires of conservative ideas and styles that differ from those available on other campuses, and that these local repertoires for action influence students’ understandings of what is appropriate to say and do politically at their university.” The trouble is that their interviews with Colorado and Harvard systems don’t come close to supporting that statement.

Here is what we can actually conclude from the “data.” Most of the Harvard students would feel uncomfortable with the more overtly provocative tactics that many (but not all) of the Colorado students have used to challenge campus orthodoxy such as affirmative action bake sales and Empty Holster Week. Conversely, the Harvard students were more apt to use what the authors call “civilized discourse” and “highbrow provocation” than were the Colorado students who were interviewed. But there were enough responses that did not fit the notion of “predominant styles” that the authors had to refer to “submerged” styles without seeing that their exceptions were swallowing up the supposed rules.

It is apparently true, based on the statements of those 46 students, that the conservative “styles” are somewhat different at these two institutions, but to say, as the authors do at one point, that they are “worlds apart” is a great overstatement. And it stretches the data well past the breaking point to say that on “any given campus” there are “unique local repertoires” of conservative action. 

In any event, why does this matter? What is important about the differences in conservative style at these two institutions, or colleges generally if that could be proven?

Binder and Wood work hard to inflate their small study into something with big implications.

“It is important to understand the range of conservative styles that exist and to track the extent to which college-age conservatives across university settings are similar, and thus have sufficient unity to form and maintain a national constituency for right-leaning action—perhaps particularly these days, as members of the Tea Party express disdain for more deliberative-style “Establishment” conservatives and moderates…. We need to know how these styles develop in the first place and what roles universities play in this process.”

Let’s try to unpack that.

First, the book abounds in passages that betray the authors’ lack of understanding of and disdain for the politics of the right, and we see that in the notion above that Tea Party adherents “disdain” the allegedly more “deliberative” kinds of conservatives. One can imagine the picture they have of Tea Party conservatives as wild, untamed, creatures—a rabble that’s been roused.

The authors don’t realize that the difference between Tea Party conservatives and “establishment” ones is not stylistic, but substantive. The former want to limit the scope and power of government more than the latter, and they have strong arguments for their position. It is inaccurate to insinuate, as Binder and Wood do, that Tea Party conservatives are not deliberative.

Second, and more important, why does it matter how different political “styles” develop and whether universities have anything to do with it? The United States has always had a wide assortment of political styles. Different strokes for different folks, as the saying goes. Political parties use a variety of approaches in their efforts at motivating “base” voters and appealing to “swing” voters.

No doubt, some activists start to build their argumentative muscles while in college, but others don’t, and some may decide later that their college “style” needs to be changed. What useful knowledge is really gained from studying the various ways conservative students (or liberal students) act while they’re in college?

The authors suggest darkly that the national conservative movement has fallen under the sway of the low-brow, provocative style, writing that civilized discourse is now “highly unpopular” and observing that in the 2012 primaries, Jon Huntsman, “the candidate who most clearly embodied the civilized discourse style,” received little support. Mr. Huntsman would not have done any better if his style had been different, and an editor at Princeton University Press ought to have told the authors that the assertion about the unpopularity of civilized discourse among conservative groups nationally is so risible that the book would be better without it.

Summing up, the book’s thesis that the college environment “shapes” young conservatives is weak and it’s hard to see any important implications of the thin research in it. When Binder and Wood write, “To understand where we may be headed, we must situate these political styles in the context of their development,” I think of Calvin.

There are, however, some interesting points.

One is that the often-heard complaint about the hostility directed at conservative students by leftist professors and other students has some truth to it. Quite a few of the students interviewed talked about insulting comments from teaching assistants and professors directed at students who disagreed with leftist ideas.

A young woman at Colorado, for example, spoke about an instance where, in a class on the American Revolution, the professor spent much of a day on a tangent about the need for a national healthcare system and asserting that those who opposed it were the kinds of people who sit in their homes wearing tin foil hats. When she later complained to him about this insult, rather than apologizing (for it, as well as for wasting class time on an entirely irrelevant matter), the professor merely grumbled that that’s how he feels.

Becoming Right goes a long way toward validating the argument that some American campuses, at least, are heavily politicized. (Harvard comes across as significantly less so than Colorado, but even in that educationally elite atmosphere, conservative students sometimes encounter ideological aggression and also suppress their views to avoid trouble.)

Another interesting idea we glimpse is that a few of the students interviewed had undergone philosophical changes during their college years.  At Colorado, a substantial percentage of the students said that they had moved from calling themselves “conservative” to calling themselves “libertarian.” At least one student said he had entered college a Democrat and had moved into the conservative camp. The reasons why students change their political and philosophical views during college (in any direction) would be worth studying.

A book (or maybe just an article) on how students do “become right” in college—that is, how college affects their thinking—would have been a far more useful piece of research than this inflated, pointless book on conservative “styles” of expression among college students.