My journey through college was the opposite of the typical one: I entered as a liberal and left as a conservative.
I started in the fall of 1996, which is when I saw Spike Lee’s movie Get on the Bus on opening night, as well as when I arrived two hours early to a rally so I could be in the front of the audience to see Hillary Clinton campaign for her husband’s reelection.
A lot of big things brought about my evolution: becoming a father, reading more widely and deeply than ever before, getting in the habit of going to church regularly, starting to work with young people as a teacher in training and thereby seeing the world without the one-dimensional rose-colored glasses provided by the youth-oriented media culture that had made me a young liberal in the first place.
But one small incident stands out as maybe more formative than anything else.
In class one day, a discussion went off topic and got into something political. I wasn’t part of the debate: on one side was a group of several frat guys and on the other was one straight arrow.
The frat guys would usually come into class bragging about their beer-fueled hedonistic adventures, in a cloud of high-fives and braying laughter. The other guy was a bit of a preppie stiff, I thought, so I tended to sit by the frat boys and hang on their stories.
From random comments here and there, it was clear that the frat boys were on board with all the liberal dogma of the times. The other guy didn’t get into it much, but he clearly felt differently.
I only remember them having a direct, full exchange of ideas that one time. Actually, it wasn’t much of an exchange: the frat pack parroted out some blithe liberal cliche or another, directed towards the square who dressed nicely and worked harder, and he responded politely but firmly with ideas and evidence to the contrary. The frat gang tried to rebut him and save face, but the debate was over almost as soon as it began. They were soon reduced to smirking, rolling their eyes, and shaking their heads: such was the strength of their argument.
The teacher who had allowed and watched this bit of conversation–I think we’d all seen it coming for a while–thinned out the tension by smiling and saying to the conservative kid, “Wow, you really know your facts.” His quiet but casual reply: “I have to.”
I saw the truth of what he meant. There it was, right in front of me: liberal gangs tended to jump on shallow bandwagons and berate those who didn’t conform. It was the conservative minority who were the real rebels, and who really had the weight of reason on their side.
Nearly two decades of study and experience have borne that observation out.
I never got to know that guy well, and I’ve long since forgotten his name, but he’s one of my heroes: he stood up against bullies and countered their ignorance with brilliance. I can only hope to someday inspire anyone like he enlightened me.