Thoughts on the Road while Revisiting Campuses

This winter I had the chance to visit several colleges to collect reactions to our report on campus activism, Deliberate Differences. Revisiting some of the schools where we collected our research proved both surprising and reaffirming.

I arrived prepared to present the findings of our report and to discuss their implications. We reported that students on the Right and the Left created two distinct cultures of student activism, with different goals and strategies. Conservative students shared a consistent ideology influenced by neo-conservatism and libertarianism. Progressive students were less able to articulate a shared vision. Authentic debate remained an elusive concept on all sides, with most activists uninterested in discussing politics with people who disagreed with them. We also found that adult political mentors were virtually absent from most campuses, and the faculty, whether conservative or progressive, maintained an unexpected silence outside their classrooms.

Pretty much everyone who came to hear about the report were students with a few faculty members and administrators. They politely listened to the findings, occasionally nodding in agreement when something sounded familiar. The real value of the sessions came, however, with the question and answer periods. Across the board the students were progressive, and they were of one mind. They were looking for ways to improve their effectiveness, and they wanted answers.

I was impressed by the levels of enthusiasm and commitment among these students, just as I had been by the students we interviewed for the project. But it is a little disconcerting to realize their interpretation of the report was that progressives were losing the campus battle and they had better shape up and fly right. Who was I to tell them how to navigate their course? Where were their local mentors?

When progressive students compare their political organizing with how conservatives function on campus, they tend to conclude that the tactics the student Right uses should be emulated if progressives are to maintain the upper hand. This echoes what some off-campus progressives have been tempted to suggest, from winning at electoral politics to changing public opinion on war, security, and the economy. Yet the approaches favored by conservatives on campus, as taught them by national conservative training institutes like the Young America's Foundation, depend on a blend of adolescent humor, sarcasm, and demonization of the opposition. Perhaps there is a connection with this way of thinking and recent progressive campus-based responses to conservative speakers such as Ann Coulter and William Kristol. Both were attacked with pies at the University of Arizona and Earlham College respectively and Pat Buchanan was smeared with salad dressing at Western Michigan University.

While these incidents can generate media attention, it is debatable how successful they are in building a political movement. And without articulating it in quite that way, students are eager to make a difference on campus and beyond. With their questions and zeal, progressive students demonstrated one of the implications of our study, that lack of campus mentors creates a void for student activists.

How did students react to the finding that debate doesn't really exist on campus in any real form? They acknowledged that this is so (and only one of our eight schools had a debating team), but they were not particularly interested in either formal or informal debates. There seemed to be a feeling that the pressures of time and an academic schedule prevented investing in debate. Beyond that, they conceded, talking with people whose opinions differ from yours can heighten conflict, create bad feelings, or make you feel inadequate if the other person is better informed. We have been taught that formal debates can be useful on a number of levels. They can hone a debater's critical thinking skills, change audience members' minds, and create a "buzz" on a specific topic. But the limiting models students observe, such as the Presidential debates of 2004, reinforce skepticism about the value and authenticity of public debate. Yet learning to deal with differences of perspective, opinion, or experience are the building blocks of a functioning democracy.

These campus visits gave PRA a chance to promote Deliberate Differences. But beyond that, they provided us with a better understanding of the campus climates in which college students learn about political life. There is room for a lot of creativity in improving progressive movements, and students demonstrated once again their ability to be the energy behind these efforts. PRA will continue to use Deliberate Differences as a catalyst to facilitate dialogue and exploration of efforts supporting effective progressive movement-building on campus. For more information or to order a copy of Deliberate Differnces, check our website at:

-Pam Chamberlain, PRA Researcher
and Author of Deliberate Differences
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