Crossing the Rapids: Young Conservatives on College Life

Peter Wood

Jonah Goldberg, editor at large of National Review Online and author of Liberal Fascism, has just published an interesting collection of essays by 22 young writers.  Proud to Be Right:  Voices of the Next Conservative Generation, wears its partisan heart on its sleeve—or at least its jacket.  Once inside, however, the reader is faced with a challenge akin to hopping across the rapids by leaping from rock to rock, some of them pretty slippery.  Each has his own idea of what it means to be “conservative,” and Goldberg and co-editor Adam Bellow, have happily stood back and let the essayists go wherever they durst.  The reader jumps from social conservatives to libertarians, from the home-schooled to hipsters, from proud contrarians to devout traditionalists, and a few unclassifiable whats-its, such as a self-proclaimed leptogonian.

It is a little out of the way for the National Association of Scholars to review a book avowedly devotes to politics, not higher education, but there two good reasons to make an exception.  First, our own Ashley Thorne, NAS Director of Communications, is among the 22 young writers featured here.  Though regular readers of this website are familiar with Ashley’s flare as a writer, this is her debut essay in a book.

Second, most of the contributors to Proud to Be Right focus on their time in college, and what they have to say is as revealing about the contemporary campus as it is about their political convictions.   It is in that spirit that I have a few comments.

Joseph Ashby, now an aerospace engineer, reflects back on the early years of his marriage, when both he and his wife Kristen were college students working part-time jobs and trying to make every penny count so they could start a family.  Their self-discipline and thrift are no protection from the tax man, who rewards Joseph’s dawn-to-past-dusk landscaping jobs and his wife phone sales work by slapping on a payroll tax greater than their year’s rent.  Their effort to earn enough to scrape by while pursuing their college degrees turns them against a “redistributive tax system.”   He says little about the academic side of their lives during this period, but he doesn’t need to.  What comes across is that clear-eyed determination to make the most of their educational opportunities.  They aren’t in college to strike poses or explore cultural frontiers, but to get somewhere with their lives.

At the other end of this particular scale is Helen Rittelmeyer whose essay, “The Smoker’s Code,” reflects on her undergraduate days at Yale, where she participated in an alliance of libertarians and traditionalists called the Party of the Right.  The bond between the two sides in this retelling is their mutual defiance of social norms through smoking cigarettes.  “We smoked on principle.  It was reactionary, libertarian spiritual, and aesthetic all at the same time.”  Rittelmeyer presents this as “devotion to style,” and Goldberg—himself a man of stylish gestures—cites her essay as his favorite in the book.  It wasn’t mine.  Though her writing is lively, Rittelmeyer is so eager to make an impression that it is hard to locate any core convictions.  Hers is an arch-conservatism in the other sense of arch. Yale doesn’t come out of this looking like a place for anyone, conservative or otherwise, of serious moral mien.

Several other essayists likewise seem to glance a little too often toward the mirror.  Todd Seavey in “Conservatism for Punks” calls for the political Right to embrace its inner punkness.  He wants to welcome “the country’s free spirits” and “creative types.”  “When Reagan talked about defending America,” Seavy wanted to defend “New Wave albums and local shopping malls.”  He has a point.  “Damn it, it’s the nation that invented cowboys and the frontier.”  His notion of what is punk is an ethic of doing what you can do for yourself.  Not a bad principle, but surely punk evokes more than frontier self-reliance.  It is also a loud, look-at-me form of cultural negation.  And Seavy’s essay has a bit of that in it too.

As for college, Seavy mentions only in passing something about the leftists he encountered at Brown.  But that looks to me like the key to his whole view:  the Ivy League college with the closest thing to a punk, do-what-you-do-for-yourself curriculum.

We get a second glimpse of Yale from Nathan Harden, and it is even more dispiriting than Rittelmeyer’s supercilious aestheticism.  In “The Girls I Knew at Yale,” Harden describes a campus norm of intelligent women who demean themselves sexually.  Their doctrinaire feminism demands that they liberate themselves by embracing, more or less, an ethic of promiscuity.  But that behavior cuts against their essential nature and leaves them, in a deep way, miserable and forlorn.   On Halloween they dress, with an irony beyond the one they intend, as low-rent prostitutes.

The counterpart to this picture of college girls swept into a social system that prizes female promiscuity as a mark of intellectual sophistication is Katherine Miller’s account of male fecklessness at Vanderbilt University.  In “Man Up,” Miller reprises half a dozen versions of the unmanly men on campus:  crybaby basketball players; sports enthusiasts who can recite stats but have no feeling for the game; snide put-down artists; meticulous moderates, moony romantics who expect women to be impressed with mere yearning.  Miller herself is pretty snide about her not-man-enough classmates but tries to make amends by praising a handful who work their way through college and “don’t talk about the girls they have dated,” but her main point sticks.  On campus, certain aspects of masculinity—“the drive, the confidence”—have softened up.  This has happened while campus women have found a level of self-confidence.

Proud to Be Right has many other glances at college life, a good many more in the spirit of John Ashby’s quiet determination to make good use of his opportunity.  Ashley Thorne’s account of her education at The King ‘s College in New York City is fascinating not least as the testimony of someone who was spared the ordeals that many professed conservatives face in college.  Her essay has special interest to me since I make an appearance as her rhetoric teacher.

Goldberg and Bellow have done a remarkable job in drawing together these nearly two-dozen very capable and often witty writers at the very beginning of their public careers.  The book is worth buying just for an introduction to individuals who, a decade from now, are likely to be among our leading cultural commentators.  Some will have to outgrow their first-draft personae; others will need to develop a richer palate of ideas; and still others seem truly to have found distinctive voices.

As for higher education, the stories told in these pages do not come as a great surprise to anyone who has been watching campus life.  But the accounts do have the weight and authority of first-hand experience, and they remind us just how diminished and diminishing college life has become.

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