In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama reached out to both sides of the aisle, appealing to Republicans and Democrats to forge principled compromises. Whether or not his centrist tone is genuine, the Yale community would be well served to seek out more balance in the political discourse on campus.
Last semester, a classmate labeled me as the “token conservative” in my seminar on Genocide and Ethnic Conflict. While generally not shy about my political beliefs, in the classroom, I prefer to be the quiet conservative. But one day in discussion, the anti-American sentiment just got to be too much. Worse, it was riddled with ironies: those who had sharply criticized the Bush administration for its efforts to promote democracy and human rights around the globe were advocating for a more active U.S. presence abroad; those who rejected the notion that America is an exceptional country now made the case that there were no limits to her power; those who lacked faith in our justice system professed naive hope in organizations like the United Nations. So I quit biting my lip, spoke up, and a lively class discussion began.
Raised in Massachusetts, I’m no newcomer to playing political defense. I can’t recall exactly when I picked up National Review or The Weekly Standard for the first time. I do know that my grandfather gave me F.A. Hayek’s “The Counter Revolution of Science” when I was a freshman in high school. I can’t quite pinpoint when I “came out of the closet” as a conservative. But I vaguely remember sitting in sophomore year French class defending George W. Bush during a discussion of the 2004 election. Too bad my French wasn’t better.
Perhaps registering as the first Republican in my family was an act of youthful rebellion. If polos, button downs, or skirt suits are the uniform of a rebel, maybe you could say so. But my parents supported my independent streak. I sometimes wonder whether I’d be a good liberal Democrat or a better-adjusted moderate if I hadn’t had to endure a left-wing high school education.
Then I got to Yale, where my ideology finally found limited company, but company nonetheless. And yet, while Yale is a reasonably safe place for conservatives, it does not support nor does it suit the serious development of conservative ideas.
Indeed, while Yale boasts students from across the globe, it falls utterly short in providing intellectual diversity on campus. Admittedly, this problem is not exclusive to Yale, and it reaches beyond the commonly cited statistics of faculty political contributions, course offerings, or graduation requirements. One need only glance at the long roster of guest speakers that visit campus any given semester to see evidence of ideological homogeneity. College, we are told, is supposed to challenge assumptions, introduce new ideas, and educate a generation of critical thinkers. But the imbalance in the political discourse on campus is antithetical to a liberal arts education. This works against students of all political stripes.
The case for intellectual diversity at Yale for the sake of education should be clear. It is also important to consider its value outside these Ivory Towers. When Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950 that there were no conservative ideas in circulation, he was careful to underline the danger of political movements lacking in ideas. Today, the Left not only hypocritically sings the song of diversity (which is selective in practice), but also insists on the intellectual bankruptcy of American conservatism.
In fact, their latest target, the Tea Party movement, would be best moderated by normalization within political discourse, instead of excommunication from it. The same principle applies to the conservative movement more broadly. If the university is not the appropriate forum to infuse conservatism with intellectual credibility, what is? Think tanks removed from everyday campus life?
Those unsatisfied by sound bite politics — liberals and conservatives alike — would benefit from more political diversity on campus. It would not hurt liberals to learn about what they do not believe — and give reasons why. Similarly, campus conservatives could refine their political philosophies by more than just reading Milton Friedman on the train to an internship in Republican politics. By creating a more balanced dialogue on campuses across the country, we could teach students to grapple with genuine differences of opinion in a civil manner. Call me an optimist, but this could even have a positive ripple effect on the divisively partisan tone in Washington D.C.
Lauren Noble is a senior in Pierson College.