Liberal and conservative campuses: Do students want their views challenged or confirmed?

Welcome back AJC intern Allison Gordon with a second piece for the blog. A rising junior at Brown University, the Atlanta native wrote last about the "swan effect," students who appear composed on the surface but are paddling frantically to remain afloat.

In this piece, Gordon discusses how high school students may choose colleges not to broaden their view of the world, but to confirm it.

I am delighted Gordon chose to submit a second piece -- and is working on a third -- despite testy responses last week from some regular commentators here.

By Allison Gordon

Throughout the 2016 election, pundits lamented the creation of “Facebook echo chambers,” the ideological bubbles people construct on social media where they can steep in ideas similar to their own.

Many believe this phenomenon makes us susceptible to fake news and conspiracies. I don’t think Facebook echo chambers are necessarily to blame for our chaotic political climate, but I know they play a part. By combing through statuses and defriending, we create virtual worlds which exclusively reflect our opinions.

Allison Gordon is a rising junior at Brown University.

But this narrative of “internet echo chambers” is limited. In my opinion, there is also a physical manifestation, a brick and mortar echo chamber. The college campus.

College is designed to push students in new directions, challenging our convictions in the classroom and beyond. But many of us chose our schools because they mirror our ideologies. It makes sense. We sought a place that nurtured our core values, validated our beliefs, and confirmed our identities. I certainly had this in mind when I chose my school.

Rarely am I forced to step out of my college bubble; truthfully, I tend to avoid doing so. My campus feels liberal and accepting and open. I love it. But coming home this summer, I realized again that my university doesn’t always reflect how the rest of the country thinks. This became especially obvious after lunch with my friend who goes to school in Mississippi.

Despite being in different circles in high school, the two of us became close senior year through an extracurricular program. I hadn’t seen her in months, so overlapping a few days in Atlanta was a happy coincidence. What was meant to be an hour-long meal turned into the entire afternoon. Immediately, the differences between our schools dominated the conversation.

In the beginning, we contrasted our class sizes (mine, 6,182 undergraduates. Hers, 18,785). We also discussed social life at both schools. At hers, game days bind together the student body. I attended a single football game my freshman year. It was for a journalism class requirement.

We wound our way to election night. Again, our schools glared in marked contrast. Walking to class on Nov. 9, I felt like my peers and I had all attended the same funeral. It was the saddest day I can remember at school; everyone I spoke with was devastated. (I’m looking forward to the comments about my liberal snowflake status, by the way. Y’all here on the AJC Get Schooled blog are helping me get a thicker skin with every article.)

In contrast, vocally opposing Trump in my friend’s circle would make you an outlier, she explained. Her college was the focus of a New York Times article about “perhaps the most reviled student at the university” who went against the grain with his brand of liberalism.

One thing our schools have in common? Both consistently make headlines. Far right commentators believe my school is a festering sore of political correctness. A few months ago, Fox News host Jesse Watters came to cover a class on “toxic masculinity.” Lightly put, most of us weren’t thrilled he was on campus. In contrast, progressives, myself included, tend to malign my friend’s school for the despicable actions of a few.

When the bill came, it sat on the table at Ladybird untouched. We continued to discuss the stereotypes about our schools, stereotypes which are antithetical to one another. In the car on my way home, I realized that our two schools are microcosms of our current political climate.

In his book The Big Sort, journalist Bill Bishop uses demographic data to show how Americans have segmented themselves into communities compatible with their ideologies and lifestyles. I argue this sorting now arrives when you decide where to go to college. I want to acknowledge my privilege in that statement. My friend and I both had the choice to leave Georgia for college, and even being able to go to college is a privilege.

I also need to be up front about something. I’ve never visited my friend’s school. I’ve never pushed my way through a crowded game day at the Grove. I’ve never been to Faulkner’s house or attended their frat parties or even been to the state of Mississippi. But I grew up in the south with kids who live, breathe, exude this campus. I know people who dreamed of attending before they knew what college really was.

I felt that way about my college, too. I wanted to study on top of a rickety hill in New England. I wanted to sit in the same seats as Janet Yellen and Hermione Granger and JFK, Jr. Like many, I fiercely loved my school before stepping on campus.

There is no denying that my school is a politically active space; I don’t regret choosing it for a minute. I would much rather be attacked for PC culture than for traces of the Confederacy. (Again, cue the comments).

But I did cherish this lunch with my friend. I’m not sure how, but more people need to be having these hard conversations. Maybe the two of us will write an academic tome, outlining how college campuses were ground zero for the polarization of 2016. Or maybe just a Buzzfeed listicle, open for comments.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.