No sooner did my brother tell my family and friends of his college plans was I bombarded with that inevitable but truly dreaded question: “How about you? Where do you want to go to school?” I could feel my face getting red as I stumbled and grasped anxiously for a semi-satisfying but perfectly vague response.
As a rising high school senior, I am finishing up the SAT and subject tests, but I know that the hardest part of the college admissions journey lies right before me: college applications and the daunting final decision, and I—like my friends and millions of students my age—are still trying to find “that school” where we will spend the next four years of our lives. But before I begin filling out the Common Application this fall, it is now almost custom for 17-year-olds like myself to make the mysterious and oft-discussed “College Trip” during the relaxing Summer Vacation. I will be joining the swarms of kids and worried parents as they descend upon thousands of campuses across the nation, some visiting only a few schools while others tour over ten in a matter of two weeks. But no matter the quantity of universities or the distance traveled, it is all too easy for them to fuze into an overwhelming haze. I know it has happened to me more than once. They all seem to have that new program, that new research or study abroad opportunity, a “state of the art” blue light system, a “holistic” admissions approach, and—of course—a “top rated” cafeteria. They all seem so similar; how are you even going to write “Why ___?” let alone actually decide where you’re going to study?
As veterans of the experience can tell you, notes are definitely vital to differentiation, but only if you know what to write down and what to hunt for. Yes, statistics like graduation and placement rates can be extremely helpful, but don’t use your (and others’) precious time on campus asking questions that can be found on the Internet or answered by an Admissions Officer individually. Instead, your student tour guide is by far the most valuable resource during your visit. Don’t throw away your chance to look beyond the glossy admissions packet by asking about mere statistics or facts that are clearly not make-or-break decisions, such as asking about library hours or if there is a senior thesis. Instead, don’t shy away from asking the personal questions or—in some cases—even putting them on the spot a little. Ask the hard questions, and don’t set them up for a cookie-cutter response; make them really think and reflect. Use this golden opportunity to ask interesting, in-depth questions. Better to know before committing to a school than taking a gamble and waiting to find out for yourself in a year or two.
Before my college trip this summer, I have consulted a variety of websites and articles searching for useful questions to ask my tour guides. Looking at pages from U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review, and The New York Times to Harvard University and Dartmouth College, I have reviewed a rich sampling of 427 questions to ask in this scenario. Nevertheless, while I found many of the potential inquiries to be very promising and illuminating, I was shocked by the subjects omitted from these lists—the questions that would be left unanswered. Specifically, I was extremely surprised that not one of these explicitly (and only two implicitly) referred to one of the most important aspects of student life: the political climate.
We go (or send our kids) to college to be challenged from the classroom to the athletic stadiums and dorms. College is that beautiful time in one’s life to find yourself, to uncover one’s interests and explore uncharted waters. It is a wonderful stage where you have the freedom and opportunity to uncover and examine yourself—past, present, and future. “Who are you and where are you headed?” is one of life’s questions for each of us, and college gives us time to contemplate this.
In the chaos and stress of college admissions, however, Americans seem to put ideological reflection on its own shelf—apart from other intellectual pursuits. In short, we are hypocrites. We claim that we value exploration and inquiry. We say that curiosity and critical thinking is what drives innovation and progress, but when it comes challenging our political opinions and outlook, though, we as Americans all too often retreat from our celebratory fanfare. We instead shake our fists and shut our ears. We become tribalistic—two groups entrenched in a long, bloody war of attrition. Both retreat to their “safe spaces,” to our underground missile silos, continuously launching rockets and demagogic rhetoric at the other—too stubborn and polarized to meet each other on the grassy plain and strive towards a deep, sincere understanding of one another.
Alas, the war rages on. America’s political tribalism cuts deeper than any other divide in society today (greater than that produced by race or language) and is at its worst in decades and perhaps—according to polls and USC research—since the Vietnam Era or even the Civil War, respectively. Democrats and Republicans are ever segregating themselves from each other—lacking close friends that share different ideologies and more are deciding to live in separate, more politically homogeneous communities. In fact, Pew Research Center reports their data on the subject “suggest[s] that there is a tendency on the left and right to associate primarily with like-minded people, to the point of actively avoiding those who disagree.
And it is only worse on college campuses. Similarly, more and more colleges seem to be turning into either liberal or conservative bastions and even if one happens to stumble upon a more politically balanced university, students may divide themselves, in the words of Frank Bruni, into “many homogeneous islands.” Instead of seeking open dialogue, college students—liberal and conservative alike—hurriedly construct their “safe spaces” and become easily offended even to the point of silencing opinions they don’t agree with. Protests to bar speakers from approaching the podium or the politically-charged dismissals of professors have become all too familiar these days. And, possibly even worse, students—hoping to avoid these confrontations altogether—often voluntarily censor themselves; in fact, a 2017 study found this to be the case with a whopping 42% of Yale students.
The casualties of this political warfare are frightening. Free speech has never been so devalued and underappreciated by college students; last year, the Brookings Institution found that the majority of students approved of cultivating “a positive learning” atmosphere devoid of “offensive or biased” “viewpoints” instead of “an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints.” But beyond that, an astonishing 51% of students believed that it is “acceptable” to “loudly and repeatedly” shout down speakers “known for making offensive and hurtful statements” while nearly 20% believe it is permissible to resort to violence in preventing the opinions of these individuals from being heard and contemplated.
Uniformity breeds intolerance. Intolerance breeds apathy. Apathy breeds extremism. Extremism breeds tyranny. Dialogue and intellectual diversity are the tools we have to not only halt but to reverse this cycle; they breed understanding and hope. For a democratic society to properly function, it is essential that viewpoints are frequently discussed and challenged. After all, what is Democracy but a bustling marketplace where the citizen is both the chief consumer and vendor? The marketplace is destroyed once we eliminate choice rather than celebrate it; intellectual diversity and discourse is a vital pillar of any Democracy.
So, when you go on your next college trip, whether you are a parent or a teenager like me, consider it your duty as a citizen to ask a student about the political climate on campus. Ask about their opinions on the college’s political diversity (both for students and faculty), the prevalence of political participation and activism, how that activism manifests itself, and the institution’s free speech policies.
Be willing to open your ears; be willing to question your assumptions and beliefs. Welcome new perspectives and open dialogue. Don’t be afraid to change your views. Democracy can only survive as long as such political inquiry is encouraged and actively pursued, and it is vital to seek out schools that earnestly and fervently emphasize and stand by such foundational principles.
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