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Last week Insider Higher Education offered a helpful summary of a new study that dug down a bit into the culture of higher education to see how conservative students survive and thrive .

The study found that students at an elite liberal arts college tended to have positive experiences, even though they knew themselves to be in an ideological minority. By contrast, conservative students at a large public research university felt afflicted.

The authors of the study, Amy J. Binder, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, and Kate Wood, a graduate student at UCSD, speculate that class size and a unified campus culture makes a difference. With small classes and an emphasis on the college community, conservatives at the small liberal arts college felt that they were included. At the big state university ideology loomed larger, perhaps because the personal dimension remains so remote.

That sounds right to me. The main message sent by elite private colleges and universities to students is “you belong.” The main message at big rambling public research universities is “whatever.”

We’re social animals, and we need to identify with a group. In a deep sense, a small private college like the one I went to (Haverford College) is conservative. It saw its own history and identity as intrinsically valuable, and therefore served as a pre-political, mediating institution. Although certainly dominated at the time by an establishment liberalism, students were socialized into the college without regard to the ideological convictions of the day. To be a “Haverfordian” was more important that being a liberal—though, again, there was a great deal of overlap.

Faced with “whatever,” we tend to fall back onto groups chosen in accord with our sentiments and beliefs. And because our sentiments and beliefs are so strongly influenced by contemporary social symbolism and the bombardment of media sound bites, our affiliations can take on a thin, ideological quality by default. That’s as true for faculty as students, which is why Big State U. can be more viciously ideological than a small college that is perhaps even more liberal by certain measures.

One interesting feature of the study can be found in the fact that conservative students found their beliefs challenged, and in being challenged, strengthened and deepened. What about the liberal students?

One worry I have about civil society in America is that liberals are becoming stupid, because they won’t admit that they are being challenged (except in the realm of electoral politics), which is why they move so quickly to attacking motives (e.g., their opponents are bigots). I hope some of those elite colleges that provide a positive and challenging environment for conservative students would do so for the larger cohort of liberal students as well. It might help make politics more intelligent.

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