The week before I left for my freshman year of college, my friends and family held a farewell dinner to send me off. I’ll never forget this piece of advice from someone at the party: “Don’t let them turn you into a liberal—if you come back and you’re a liberal, we’ll disown you.”
As a student holding right-leaning political beliefs, the college search was somewhat awkward for me. Whether it was Fox News in the kitchen, talk radio in the car or scrolling through Twitter on my phone, I was inundated with the message that college campuses are arenas of liberal indoctrination where I would be turned into a lackey for the progressive agenda. Leftist professors would fail me if I dared to express my views, and “snowflake” students would be on the lookout to shout down and ostracize anybody like me on campus. The American college was a conservative’s worst nightmare, and I was terrified.
In my first year, Davidson was caught up in its own scandal regarding free speech on campus. Last spring, Fox News ran a segment accusing Davidson of “censoring” a conservative speaker invited by the campus organization that I lead, Young Americans for Freedom. Needless to say, nothing about this story was true, and while I could dwell on the specific mischaracterizations made in this piece (I obsessed over them all for three weeks last year), I think that there is a broader political truth to be drawn here.
Our current political moment echoes the following construct: “I am on the liberal/conservative team. The other conservative/liberal team is bad. Our team must win, and we will stop at nothing to make sure we do.” Consequently, our politics have become more polarized and more tribal than at any other point in modern history. A June 2016 Pew Research study detailed the sharp rise in political animosity in the lead-up to the 2016 election. The study reads, “[f]or the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party,” and that “sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger.”
The question, then, arises: What can be done to fix this issue of partisan animosity?
I believe you find the answer at places like Davidson. A liberal arts education is firmly rooted in the development of critical thinking and the celebration of civil discourse. Davidson’s own Statement of Purpose reflects this idea, saying that the college “intends to teach all students to think clearly, to make relevant and valid judgments, to discriminate among values, and to communicate freely with others in the realm of ideas.” It is a commitment to these values from liberal arts institutions like Davidson that prepares students for a pluralistic society.
I remember in my first-year writing class, we talked about all sorts of hot-button issues ranging from gun control to inaugural addresses, and I always felt comfortable sharing my opinions on the topics at hand. After I had an uncharacteristically silent class, however, my professor, Dr. Hillard, came up to me and, in no uncertain terms, told me that my perspective mattered. That was a revelatory moment. The specific apprehensions I had about college vanished, and I saw the boundless potential for opportunities to engage in valuable discourse at Davidson. Every day, professors in my classes and peers in my free time introduce new ideas that challenge what I once thought about the world; my roommate is the vice president of the College Democrats, and I’m the co-president of the campus conservative group. That sort of exposure to different ideas is inherent in the DNA of Davidson’s liberal arts curriculum and is fundamental to our growth as democratic citizens. I’m challenged by different viewpoints without being pressured to alter my own. I’m taught that it’s okay to disagree.
Imagine if, in our current political conversations we, instead of resorting to our respective teams and looking to win no matter the cost, understood that it was okay to disagree with people. No longer would we feel frustrated, afraid and angry with those with whom we disagree. Rather, we would be able to engage in meaningful discourse and work toward solving the major issues facing our nation. Davidson crafts leaders who understand the importance of discourse and disagreement, and it is crucial for us to remember that disagreement need not be a nasty affair. It can be okay to disagree.