What does "liberal" and "conservative" mean to you?
May 6, 2010 6:24 PM   Subscribe

What does it mean to colloquially say "That city is so liberal" or "That school is so conservative"?

I ask because I am applying to schools, and I spent a year at an art school thinking I wanted to get away from conservative backwoods Virginia, but I hated it. A bunch of hipsters, atheists, militant Greenpeace volunteers, and recycling boxes in every dorm room (oh, you had to recycle or you'd get looks) and everyone, I mean everyone, was discussing how they were going to vote for Obama. That's what "liberal" means to me now—and it has a really bad connotation. When I came back to Virginia, I noticed that the so-called closed-minded conservatives actually seem to think through their beliefs more (and, believe it or not, I feel like I hear more diverse viewpoints here too), whereas everyone I knew at this extremely liberal school simply seemed to go along with what they deemed "progressive".

What does it really mean when someone says "That school is very liberal", and why does "conservative" have such a bad connotation when talking about schools (I know what they mean by definition, but apparently there is more to it that I'm not getting)? Does it have to do with the administration, the students, the teaching?
posted by lhude sing cuccu to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
They're using it of course in the modern left/right sense, not the personal behaviors sense or the somewhat older political sense. It's going to vary immensely by context. All I can discern from your question is that you're happier where you are now, and you felt that the art school was a monoculture. The terms as applied to schools only have a "bad connotation" in certain audiences, for the same contextual reason.

Be happy where you're happy, and in 5 years nobody will give a shit about where you went to college. Anyone that insists on needling you about it will receive your broadest smile as you explain how successful you are on your own terms (and how, by implication, they are not and are actually sort of pathetic for focusing on a decision among many somewhat fungible schools you made as a very young person).
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:29 PM on May 6, 2010

The terms conservative and liberal can apply to universities in several context besides social and political. One example is the way a subject is taught. For example the philosophy department, it could be conservative (focusing on classical greek and modern european philosphy), or it could be more liberal (teaching non-western philosophy and existentialism). The school coudl teach classical art, or abstract.
posted by Flood at 6:34 PM on May 6, 2010

To a degree, the amount of "liberalism" or "conservatism" that arises in schools tends to either take the form of the majority spirit of the student body or certain policy positions held by the school's administration. For example, a school generally regarded as very conservative is Bob Jones University. At Bob Jones, they have strict rules on how the sexes can interact with each other. Also, while generally, most faculty are considered to be liberal at most universities (the so called liberal ivory tower), the way they teach and the viewpoints they inject into their lessons will reflect their ideology (some professors do keep their personal positions out of their classrooms). So you may get a professor who will make comments or teach from a perspective that reflects their political persuasion.

Generally, to answer your question on why conservatism at the university level is considered "bad" by some is because it's usually found only at religious institutions. These institutions will inject conservative social policies on both the students and the faculty. Depending on one's political or religious viewpoints, some might find such conservative policies to be anything but liberating. At the more conservative schools of this nature, the supported ideology may even influence the course work, such as the areas of evolution vs creationism, etc. Lastly, the larger the school you go to, the less you'll probably identify as everyone falling into an X or Y category unless you're skipping around major regions of the country where the general populace may swing one way or the other. You'll encounter people who you consider very liberal and you'll encounter people you consider very conservative, but they won't represent the majority.
posted by Atreides at 6:42 PM on May 6, 2010

Colleges in America are usually regarded as liberal. That is utter nonsense. The liberal arts, the arts, and the social sciences tend to be filled with liberal faculty. But Business, PE, Education, Sciences tend to be dominated by conservative faulty. The difference though is that those in the humanities tend to write letters, be more expressive and so forth so that the conservative voice is seldom noted and never an issue in classes, unless in economics you get involved in various methods of doing the subject (ie, Milton Friedman versus Paul Krugman types).

Few cities are "liberal," but San Francisco is known for its freedom of expression--gays seldom bothered now, pot "in," etc...East Coast and West Coast cities tend to be big enough to embrace all sorts of people. Southern cities usually more conservative, as can e witnessed in election results and representation in their states and in congress.
But good advice: go where you are with those you feel at ease with and among.
posted by Postroad at 6:43 PM on May 6, 2010

You are conflating two things which is leading to a huge misconception: one is a liberal school and the other is a conservative city. Yes, a school is going to be much more of a monculture - it self-selects its people. People pick it based on what they think it's going to be like, and then the school self perpetuates its identity by accepting the people that most fit its definition of an ideal student. Plus you didn't just go to any school, you went to art school! Which is basically the worst, because most colleges offer many different types of education and thus attract many different types of people. Any city is going to be more diverse than a simple college, especially a college whose interests are so narrow.

Don't paint liberal cities with the same brush though, because having lived in the South and also in a liberal city I can tell you that there is more diversity in a "liberal" city in many ways. There's more food choices - not just fast food or chains like Applebees - but artisan food, and taco carts, and mom and pop places - a whole gamut. There's shopping malls, but also weird revival movie theaters. There is still groupthink, that's true - but I find that there are still more options.

Picking a place because its conservative or liberal is not a very good idea, though. There are a lot more important things: how affordable is it? How easy is it to navigate? Are the people friendly? What is the crime rate like? What's the climate like? How close is it to the people that are already important to you? For me, moving to Portland Oregon made sense because it's relatively affordable, unlike San Francisco or NYC, and because it's still an easy city to walk around in, and because it doesn't have harsh winters. The fact that people here believe things like I do was a nice side-effect, but I could have made friends with a more diverse (but still rather nice) crowd if I'd moved somewhere else.
posted by Kiablokirk at 6:53 PM on May 6, 2010

"Liberal" and "Conservative" have long since strayed from their political meanings, and instead become intertwined with stances on fundamentally non-political issues (i.e., issues unrelated to the exercise of governmental power).

Conservative, as I understand it, means keeping federal influence in state affairs to a minimum, and letting free-market principles operate as much as possible.

Liberal, as I understand it, means using government (law, resources, etc.) to address problems that the free market does not resolve efficiently on their own.

However, in recent years, Liberal has largely come to mean "pro-choice", "LGBT rights", and "anti-war". Conservative has largely come to mean "pro-life", "pro-gun", and "hawkish". These positions, in my opinion, do not necessarily reflect either a truly "conservative" or "liberal" political stance. Nowadays, if you agree with one parcel, then you call yourself a liberal or conservative. Very lit

Indeed, the traditional conservative position on abortion might not be "pro-life", but rather pushing for each state to set its own policy on the matter rather than have the Federal government set a blanket policy for the nation-- which would include the right of states to determine that abortion should be legal. And ironically, the current "liberal" position might support this state independence when it comes to legislation on the legality of gay marriage.

Most likely, when people describe a school as liberal or conservative, they're referring to the curriculum, the dominant perspectives in that curriculum, and the student body. But again, I think this is more of the "new" interpretation of conservative/liberal than the political one.
posted by holterbarbour at 6:54 PM on May 6, 2010

As an art school graduate from some years ago, let me tell you something: while there are many bright art students, in general, art programs are not where you go for deep political or philosophical thinking.

As a matter of fact, people in general, not just people in art school, often just parrot the political opinions of their peer group. This is, in fact, part of why sometimes the nature of the school as a whole may be important to you. Who do you want your peer group to be? Why did the kids you met irk you so much?
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:55 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

That's what "liberal" means to me now—and it has a really bad connotation.

Try to remember that this bias is based on one specific experience, in one specific place, with a group of specific individuals. When other people use these terms, they aren't using them in this context (they have their own bias!).
posted by hermitosis at 6:56 PM on May 6, 2010

Edit: "Very little room left nowadays for those people who take a hawkish position on military intervention, but favor LGBT rights."
posted by holterbarbour at 6:57 PM on May 6, 2010

I think what you are witnessing is more of an age thing than a liberal/conservative thing. The liberals at your school were all 18 years old and passionate without any real-world experience, and the conservatives in your city have probably been conservative for a long time and are comfortable enough with the nuances of political positions to be open-minded about things. Creative 18-year-olds on their own for the first time can be an insufferable lot. That said, you can look to the conservatives who hold state office here in VA and see that to a very scary degree, there is very little diversity in viewpoints there.
posted by headnsouth at 7:09 PM on May 6, 2010

headnsouth: hm, good observation!

I'm looking at schools in New England, and every single one is called "liberal", to the point where there's nearly no meaning to the word. I'm mostly worried about getting a biased education because I'm majoring in philosophy and there's a whole lot of room for that. (Because "liberal" might mean "applied ethics, animal rights, and feminism" in philosophy, for all I know.)
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 7:35 PM on May 6, 2010

You'll be hard pressed to find a respectable New England school where a philosophy major means daydreaming about Michelle Obama hugging a puppy ethically, in all seriousness-- although applied ethics and animal rights are both big topics in philosophy right now, and you shouldn't ignore them just because you think they're "liberal".

I went to a liberal school in a liberal city, and the philosophy majors I knew studied Aristotle, Nietzsche, Kant, Heidegger, etc. ad nauseum. Any education-- liberal or conservative-- is biased, but your professors will stick to the canon just about anywhere you study philosophy. If you're worried about being brainwashed, just think extra critically about everything. That's what philosophy's all about anyway, isn't it?
posted by oinopaponton at 8:01 PM on May 6, 2010

Philosophy departments may very well have particular biases, but you should look into who the faculty are rather than make assumptions based on rumors about the student body. If the philosophy department tends toward political and applied philosophy, you'll get more feminism and animal rights. Any accredited school will be able to give you the basics, but if you're hoping to get deeply into medieval philosophy or something, some places may be better than others.
posted by mdn at 9:12 PM on May 6, 2010

Sounds like there's a bit of outgroup homogeneity bias here, exacerbated by your type of experience - leaving a conservative town (with all varieties of conservative people) to an art school (fairly homogeneous, and very stereotypically liberal).
posted by qvantamon at 9:22 PM on May 6, 2010

I'm mostly worried about getting a biased education because I'm majoring in philosophy and there's a whole lot of room for that.

I'd argue that there isn't any more room in a philosophy class for bias than there is in any other subject.

In non-philosophers' minds, the academic subject of philosophy often gets lumped together with vague ideas about self-discovery and definition and the kinds personal philosophies that get painted on surfboards. But in a rigorous philosophy program, your professors will mostly be concerned with teaching you how to make water-tight arguments and showing you where specific ideas came from, and those aren't exactly areas wide-open to biased teaching.

Also, if you stick with philosophy, you learn how to argue about things that are really important to you without losing your temper, because you do it All The Time in class. Practice makes perfect and all that. So philosophy professors are often a pretty tolerant bunch, because they've decided to devote their entire lives to arguing with interesting people about interesting things. A "good" philosophy class is one where no one ever starts out agreeing about anything, and so you get to have really fun arguments about why everyone else is wrong.

That being said, see if you can find the major requirements for the philosophy departments in the schools you're looking at (it'll often be somewhere on the department's home page). If the major requirements are heavy on basic courses like Continental Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, etc, then I wouldn't worry too much about a specifically liberal bias in the philosophy department. Most of what you read will be from the basic philosophy canon--Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Locke, etc--and both conservatives and liberals borrow heavily from many of those thinkers.
posted by colfax at 11:14 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ick, those kids sound awful! And honestly, almost every New England college is going to be like that (assuming you're applying to liberal arts schools). If you went to a university, like Boston U or UMass or something like that, I think the population wouldn't be quite so homogeneous. Every school will have a mix, but like someone mentioned above, people self-select their schools -- and the people self-selecting to go to many liberal arts schools are going to generally fit a certain stereotype. Universities draw a more diverse crowd and their larger size makes you feel less suffocated by any one group. Most NE universities will still have a mostly liberal or at least "democrat" population, but it will definitely be a better range of viewpoints. And you have more chances to find your niche.

Just know that, wherever you go, you will eventually find "your people". You might have to work a little harder at it at some places, but it will happen.
posted by imalaowai at 7:38 AM on May 7, 2010

« Older How to set a better example for a controlled...   |   Questions about a Canadian taking a Post-Doc in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.