The Magazine

Right out of College

Erin Sheley, conservative coed.

Sep 3, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 47 • By ERIN SHELEY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

WHEN I LEFT HOME for my freshman year of college three years ago, my mother and father did what every diligent parent since Polonius has: They sat me down for the Talk. Unlike most 18-year-olds about to set off into the world, however, I did not receive the usual warnings about drugs, alcohol, or my maidenhood. As I was headed for Harvard University, famous for its dearth of both social scene and attractive men, perhaps these didn’t seem like pressing concerns. Instead, my mother placed her hand on mine, gazed at me earnestly, and, with tear-filled eyes, implored, "Honey, . . . don’t become a liberal."

Her fears were well founded. Of some 2,000 faculty members at Harvard, all of 6 identify themselves as conservative. On the way to class each morning, I pass a Communist bookstore, a gaggle of protestors wielding flourescent "Free Mumia" posters, and, if the weather’s good, an encampment of Abercrombie-clad Progressive Students Labor Movement members subjecting Harvard Yard to their noise pollution and odor while trying to replace the collective bargaining process of the university workers’ union with their own smoothie-sipping authority. Once I actually enter the lecture hall, the timbre of discussion is much the same—sans smoothies.

And yet I was not tempted. I had figured that being surrounded by the most brilliant liberal minds in the country might make me waver in my own beliefs. After all, as a pro-gay marriage vegetarian from California, I’ve often strayed from the GOP line. But being immersed in left-wing intellectualism—even subjected to the chastisements of my friends in the dining hall each evening—only made me more steadfast in my perceptions.

I certainly did some soul-searching. Last year, for example, one of my advisers in the English department explained to me that the study of literature was, in its entirety, incompatible with conservatism. A text, it would seem, was inherently evolving, and conservatism demanded an adherence to the static. I was floored. I returned to my room, with its shelves of Keats and Hardy, and wondered if I was a pseudo-intellectual, an oxymoron. And then laughed. I had been studying English for five semesters. Unless, in some sort of postmodern way, I did not in fact exist (which was entirely within the realm of possibility, according to our philosophy department), my adviser’s argument was difficult to grasp because it was ridiculous.

Another moment of self-evaluation came when the Radcliffe Union of Students (the women’s group to which every female undergraduate technically belongs) put on its annual "Take Back the Night Week," to raise awareness of violence against women. In a candle-holding, group-swaying sort of way, they touched on some genuine issues, but one item on the agenda shocked me: the Pro-Choice Activism Workshop.

Apparently, the RUS purported to speak for every woman in the college on a highly divisive issue. Though unsure of my own moral view of abortion, I was furious that women—or supporters of women’s rights—were automatically taken to be pro-choice. When I said as much in an op-ed for the Harvard Crimson, I was put in my place by a (male) letter writer, who said my supporting the right of pro-life females not to be spoken for was tantamount to endorsing the rape of women.

So, here I am, living an enormous lie. Not only am I not an English major, apparently I’m not a woman either. And my mother thought I would be swayed by these arguments?
While I’ve accepted the role of everyone’s favorite token conservative at school, I am perpetually frustrated by my position at the margin of discourse at the college I’ve grown to love. My observation is hardly original: The liberal indoctrination at universities isn’t exactly a news flash. I suppose I’d like to raise a challenge to those conservative thinkers who hesitate to head east for college.

I’ve found only a refined understanding of my beliefs in the often stimulating, often infuriating, forum of a "liberal" liberal arts institution. And I can’t help but believe that once more of us endure trial by ideological fire, we’ll have a better chance of restoring balance to the academic discussion. So parents, don’t worry: Send your kids to Harvard (or Brandeis or even—shudder—Yale). They’ll stay conservative. Just remember to mention a few of those other cautions during the Talk.