I left the building as soon as class was over. My breath came in halting, heavy gasps as I attempted to keep back tears. Face burning, hands shaking, I bolted out into the grass, sank to my knees, and lost it. I was angry. I was scared. I was frustrated. I was ashamed. For what seemed like the millionth time, I had stood against government interference in my class, only to be fiercely shouted down —by everybody.
It’s hard to describe precisely what it feels like to say something that you think is harmless and have every single person in the room look at you as if you’re a monster. It’s not fun. Meek people cow and back down, speak softly, perhaps even apologize, then never speak up again for fear of causing more discord.
I have never been meek.
In fact, I had been doing much the same my entire life. In high school, I dared to posit that democracy might not be the only form of government that could work, and for weeks I was taunted in the hallways, called “communist,” and even had snot put in my hair. In college, things were slightly better, but the not-so-subtle isolation from many of my peers was, I knew, due to the things they thought I believed because of my label: “libertarian.”
And I still continued to speak out. I have never been afraid of disagreement or difference. I liked to argue. I liked being right (and, let’s face it, I usually was). No matter how much being ganged up on in a classroom of my peers hurt or enraged me, I still came back for more.
But this was different. This time, my classmates were right.
“I saw a segment on Bill O’Reilly last night that said college professors are incredibly biased,” Professor Ross* said at the beginning of class. She looked at me while the rest of my peers scoffed and laughed at the pundit’s ignorance. “I don’t think I’m biased; do you?”
I pursed my lips, caught off guard by the question, and just shrugged. I always had respect for Professor Ross and didn’t have the heart to tell her that, yes, she was biased. It was in the way she talked about our material, the subtle way she gave more explanation to a policy that she favored and only gave cursory nods to those she didn’t. It was in a class on discourse where, to her credit, she assigned students to represent a Tea Party position, but allowed them to hold up satirical signs (“God hates fags”) instead of actually representing their point of view. She laughed with them.
Ross, however, was one of the good ones. I had walked out of classes after professors had openly mocked conservatives. I had to confront more than one about ignoring or refusing to engage with my commentary, I thought, because of our political differences. And I will never forget the day when my human rights professor pointed me out in class, at the beginning of the semester, and said “Gina isn’t going to like this, but free markets are the reason why people are poor in the world.”
Conservatives have, of course been railing against liberal bias in the classroom for years. No one denies that most academics are left-leaning (and apparently becoming moreso), nor that many students leave college more liberal than they got there. However, a recent study suggests that liberal bias in the classroom doesn’t quite rise to indoctrination. In fact, it seems, the more students interact with their professors, the more moderate they become. Conservatives become more liberal and liberals become more conservative.
As Dodson, an author on the study, said “it appears that a critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas—a hallmark of the college experience—challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions.”
Believe me, “re-evaluating your political convictions” is not as pleasant as Dodson makes it sound.
I felt like I was having a panic attack. I sprawled out on the lawn, trying to get air into my lungs. It was as if everything I ever knew or believed in was crashing down around me, pushing in on my chest, making the world swim.
We had been talking about poverty. My classmates were debating the merits of welfare, particularly in the face of systemic racism. Welfare was important, they said, because many people who are poor often don’t have control over the circumstances that make them poor or those that keep them from changing their situation.
This didn’t make sense to me. I grew up poor, and I worked my ass off for what I got. It wasn’t easy, and I made it work. Why couldn’t other people do the same? I asked why barriers couldn’t be overcome by excessive hard work. True, it was not fair that some people had to work harder than others to get by, but that’s life. It’s unfair.
They argued back. People born in poor communities get a bad education, which limits their opportunities. If they are people of color, they have to face small, everyday biases—many that people aren’t even conscious of—that keep them out of job markets where white people would be given a chance. Depression, worthlessness, and stagnation set in, and they don’t have access to mental healthcare to address those problems. They are, my classmates argued, caught in a system that’s stacked against them.
It made sense, but I found myself resisting anyway. How could it be the case that the deck was stacked against certain people, yet also the case that the government didn’t have a proper role in mitigating that injustice?
I didn’t have an answer, to them, or to myself, and I left class in tears. I now sat on the lawn, a complete mess, trying to fit two different ideas about the world together in my head. As I calmed, I made myself accept what I already knew was true: my classmates were right—at least about the first part. Life is hard, but it is harder—unjustly so—for others.
But I also knew that government intervention had not solved these problems in the past, had not solved them in my life, and did not work in properly evaluated theory. How could I help those whom society had shafted—really, truly help them and make society better, without favoring government programs that only seemed to help?
As this question rose in my mind, it overtook me. Panic melted into resolve. I had a question that needed answering, and I wanted that answer. I took several deep breaths. My hands steadied. I picked myself—and my bag—off the ground and headed off to my dorm.
I had research to do.
I have always considered myself a libertarian, but as I entered college, I saw the world in simplistic terms. Those who were poor were there because of their own bad decisions. Hadn’t I seen that with my father? Racism was a thing that belonged in the 60s, and black people who struggled to make ends meet were just unable to overcome their “bad culture” and work hard enough. That certainly seemed to be the case with kids I knew in school. Gay marriage? Easy. Just get the government out of marriage altogether!
Interacting with my liberal professors and classmates was the hardest thing about being in college. But, like with most difficult things, I came out better for it. That moment, sitting on the quad in my despair, struggling against my own cognitive dissonance, made me a better libertarian.
My points became more nuanced. My understanding of the world—and what it means to be free—deepened. I understood markets better from my research into the problems my friends gave me. I understood politics better when I meaningfully grappled, rather than just argued, with my professor’s challenges to what I believed. I learned that just because I disagreed with my friends’ solutions to problems, didn’t mean that the problems they were concerned about didn’t exist.
And, most importantly, I became more empathetic to the struggles of those around me who weren’t lucky enough to be born white, cisgendered, straight, fully able, and intelligent. Instead of denying the problems of these people, I looked for ways to help them without harming others. Libertarians have solutions to these problems, unorthodox though they may be. And because I am open to understanding, I can represent them better.
Empathy, knowledge, courtesy, respect, humility. These are human virtues, that everyone of every political identity should have if they want to be effective. And they are things, despite libertarians’ incessant bickering about brutalism vs humanitarian (or whatever), that all political activists can stand to improve upon. They are, without a doubt, some of the most important traits I picked up from my liberally-biased, indoctrinating professors.
I’ll have to thank them someday.
*Names changed to protect my beautiful, flawed, and amazing professors.