POLITICS ON CAMPUS:
A Q&A WITH AMY BINDER
Here, we talk to her about politics on campus in the wake of a
particularly divisive presidential election. Her answers have been
edited for length and clarity.
In your book Becoming Right, you catalog the political
development of students at two very different universities. On the
whole, where would you say political development takes root? Is it
on campus or in earlier family and life experiences?
There is absolutely no doubt that families have an enormous
impact on their children’s politics. Research shows that in
households where parents talk about politics, kids are more
politically engaged. If parents vote, kids will vote. And when it
comes to political orientation, liberal parents generally raise
liberal children and conservative households, conservative kids.
But that is not the end of the story. In Becoming Right, a
book about right-leaning college students, my co-author, Kate
Wood, and I found that political development continues well
into college. Not only does college in general matter, but
specific universities shape the styles of political activity young
Eastern Elite, as we call one school, is a storied institution
with illustrious alumni, charming traditions, small classes taught
by eminent faculty, and a strong sense of community. Though
it is a Ph.D.-granting university, it offers the kind of close-knit,
liberal arts experience you’d find at a place like Amherst or
Williams. A civilized discourse style of conservatism prevailed
at Eastern, characterized by long discussions and sponsored
events aimed at getting liberals and moderates to more fully
understand the conservative perspective, reflecting students’
high regard for their classmates’ and professors’ talents.
Western Public, on the other hand, fits in with the rowdy
college experience you’ll often see in movies. It is a big-time
sports school with large lecture classes, sections taught by TAs,
and limited on-campus housing. Western Public is a much
more impersonal place than Eastern Elite; students understand
that they must fend for themselves in a bureaucracy. We found
that a provocative style dominated Western, designed to agitate
students, administrators, and professors and to attract the
attention of local media and politicos.
By identifying these two particular styles of being
conservative, we showed that universities have an enormous
influence on the tone and tenor of young people’s political
development that will, presumably, inform these students’
political activity later in life. Learning in this way is a form of
student development that for too long has been overlooked.
Amy Binder, a professor of graduate studies at the University of California, San Diego, researches
cultural sociology, higher education, politics, and organizations. Her 2013 book Becoming Right: How
Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, co-authored with Kate Wood, examines how right-leaning
college students experience higher education on two very different campuses. Her current project, Career
Funneling: How Elite Students Learn to Define and Desire ‘Prestigious’ Jobs, is a case study of
Harvard’s and Stanford’s effects on students’ career goals.