White bread is public enemy number one.
Not the squishy stuff your mom slathered with peanut butter and put in your lunchbox. I’m talking about the bland conformity that we too often immerse ourselves in when confronted with uncomfortable situations and new surroundings. The beginning of a new school year doesn’t have to be the equivalent of soul-crushing homogeny with the crust cut off. Embrace the diversity that is before you. Give Ward Churchill a big, wet, sloppy smooch. Hug a Young Republican. Forget about twisting your blonde hair into dreadlocks, and chat up the quiet girl who sits in the back of the lecture hall. Go to the library and check out the latest screed by right-wing provocateur David Horowitz, who wants to blacklist university professors he deems too “lefty.”
Learn about the things you hate, fear or don’t understand, and challenge your beliefs. Resist the urge to befriend only people who look and sound like you. It’s that instinctive tendency to herd with your own that is so well exploited by the political factions you will encounter on campus. Couched in terms like “academic bill of rights” and “freedom of inquiry,” groups like Students for Academic Freedom — which wasn’t actually founded by students — serve as fronts for opportunists, like Horowitz, who are raising fistfuls of dollars to perpetuate their self-declared war against liberalism while making a nice living sucking up student-activity fees through campus lectures.
That’s not to say the left doesn’t have its own problems with kooky causes, strident, self-appointed spokespersons and uninformed hypocrites who want you outfitted in unisex hemp jumpsuits so as long as they enjoy lucrative consulting gigs and tenured positions at navel-gazing think tanks.
Critical-thinking skills are too often a casualty of late-night cram sessions, a diet of ramen noodles and Froot Loops, and a bank account with dry heaves. And it’s precisely when students are overloaded and stressed out that you become enamored with the cause-of-the-week charlatans.
On my campus, students might have fallen under the spell of the bug-eyed traveling preacher with the ever-present crust of spittle in the corner of his mouth, railing about the misery of damnation that is sure to befall you. On the other side of the quad were the cult members inviting unsuspecting students to a free vegetarian meal and the first of many indoctrination sessions to help them see the light. I was always amazed by how many of my dormmates, who were generally smart people, latched onto that primal need for tribalism: to belong to something, to share fear in a common enemy and be validated by people who mainline white bread. It’s like crack for your soul, without the tooth decay and embarrassing mug shot. Except that first taste isn’t really free.
Thinking is the only antidote. Explore for answers. Probe for the truth. Challenge the conventional wisdom. Ask, “Why?”
It’s disingenuous to frame the argument of academic freedom on campus as an issue of liberal or conservative political expression. It’s neither. It’s about respect for differing points of view. When you find yourself getting angry over an opposing position, it’s time to explore whether that frustration really comes from a lack of understanding about the issue — from your side or the other. Have the courage of your convictions as long as you really know what they are. Understand the irony of championing Ayn Rand while you’re enrolled in a public university.
You earn the right to rage against the machine only when you can identify the purpose of every gear and sprocket.
Otherwise, it’s just a whole lot of self-righteous intellectual masturbation. And who needs to pay tuition when you can do that at home for free?
This commentary was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Chronicle.