Twenty years after graduation, I’m a seasoned professional conservative. I’ve been the literary editor of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review and now serve as a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, which, thanks to its advocacy of intelligent design, is probably the country’s most hated think tank. My latest book, due out in June, is How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative. You get the idea.
No parents, I assume, ever sent their child to Brown in the hope of inspiring a radical political and religious turn to the right. That would include my own liberal and secular Jewish parents, who were startled to realize the effect college was having on me. In high school, I wasn’t content to be just a liberal. In the very Republican suburb of Los Angeles where I grew up, I wore hippie attire and a long beard, though I got rid of the facial hair in time for orientation week at Brown. By that time, I considered myself a socialist and was present, in Birkenstocks, for the school year’s first meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America, held in a room in Hope College. Over my bed in Emery-Wooley hung a poster of Karl Marx. My freshman roommate, a lacrosse player from Long Island, seemed to think I was a pretty asinine seventeen-year-old. He was probably right.
By the summer of 1984, still asinine, I found my politics had been transformed. I was a youth delegate to the Republican National Convention in Dallas, which nominated Ronald Reagan for a second term. A noteworthy incident at the convention was the burning of a U.S. flag outside Reunion Arena by a Communist Youth Brigade member. He was arrested (with my hearty approval) and took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled, in Texas v. Johnson, that anti-flag-burning statutes were unconstitutional.
What had happened to cause this political conversion? When I was a sophomore, a junior on whom I had a mad crush had a theory on this question: “You’re just a contrarian,” she said. “You’re an anti-chameleon. Whatever other people around you say, you’ll say the exact opposite.” I laughed and half-agreed.
We’ll call her Tamara, to protect her privacy now that she’s a responsible adult with a family. Back then she was a semiotics concentrator who despised Republicans, took offense at being called a “girl” instead of a “woman,” smoked cigarettes over cups of greasy coffee at Loui’s, and consumed books by such French theorists as Derrida, Barthes, and Foucault. By Tamara’s own measure, these habits would make her a regular conformist at Brown in 1984, at least among students in the humanities.
For Brown at that time was pervaded by a delightful atmosphere of addled liberalism. I loved it even as I opposed it, and still look back with fondness and nostalgia. I wouldn’t rule out sending my own kids to such a college. That may seem paradoxical coming from someone who today is a very conservatively inclined father of five, but as I hope this essay will show, an atmosphere of provocation and challenge does not necessarily lead to one political or religious end.
For a lot of students back then, Brown in 1984 was the platform for sticking it to everything that is traditional in our “patriarchal” culture, as they called it. If you think of a father as a symbol—or a “signifier,” as the semiotics crowd liked to say—then knocking him on his back was exactly what lefty campus activism boiled down to.
When I arrived on campus in 1983, for example, the boiling controversy was over whether to invite the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps back to campus, almost twenty years after it had been abolished there. In 1984, students voted to demand that University Health Services stock suicide pills in case of nuclear war—a theoretical measure since everyone knew Brown officials would never terrify our parents by going along with the plan. But again, upsetting Dad was the point of the whole episode.
Nor was the revolt against the paternal limited to politics. The theme of the most fashionable humanities scholarship was to indict the patriarchy by accusing the great fathers of literature—the classic authors—of racism, sexism, and homophobia. This may sound like a cartoon, but at Brown in the mid-1980s, it was commonplace. Yes, I delighted in all this craziness. What I most value in it now is that it provoked me, arousing my suspicion. If so many people were so intent on decrying the patriarchy, on insisting that every traditional meaning transmitted by Western tradition was arbitrary and meaningless, then maybe the precise opposite was true. The more I was told that there was no singular Truth to be obtained from the great tradition that went before us, the more I was inspired to seek out the forbidden.
This is, I think, an overlooked aspect of a good education that conservatives, not least the religiously conservative, often forget. Education is not indoctrination. The purpose of college isn’t to program students with accepted doctrines, turning them into clones of their teachers and parents, but to provoke them to think for themselves. Brown, true to its best tradition, did this for me.
Beginning with my sophomore year, everything that happened confirmed my new direction. I became the lone and reviled conservative columnist for the Brown Daily Herald. In my inaugural column, I wrote about an experience I’d had at the Third World Center. One afternoon, Tamara and I had wandered in and discovered that President Howard Swearer was in the building, about to have a meeting with students. We ambled down the hall to the entrance of the room where the meeting would take place, only to be stopped by a young woman. She looked us up and down. “Sorry, you can’t come in,” she said, adding that because Tamara and I were not “Third World” students, we were not welcome. We were barred from entering a university facility because we were white.
With a barely concealed glee at having discovered liberals in the act of discriminating on the basis of skin color, I wrote an inflamed column denouncing this antiwhite racism. I invoked Martin Luther King Jr. and the ideal of race-blindness. Warming to the subject, I pointed out that there was something wrong with Brown’s—and many other universities’—approval of exclusively black fraternities and sororities. I lamented that at mealtime in the Ratty, you would see students of different races sitting at separate tables.
Why couldn’t we all be friends? Why did no one protest politically correct racial separatism?
After the article appeared in the Herald, I returned to my room in Andrews Hall to find obscene graffiti on my door: F**K YOUR RACIST A**. Students poured forth enraged letters to the editor, almost every one condemning me. Because I was a resident counselor for a group of freshmen living in the basement of Andrews, the dean in charge of first-year students called me into her office to chastise me. As I understood it, I stood accused of racism for protesting racism. Subsequently, the dean appointed a student committee to oversee my counseling. The last name of the undergraduate who headed the committee was Kafka, proof that God, or possibly the dean of first-year students, had a wicked sense of humor.
I was shunned. I was a pariah. And I thoroughly enjoyed almost every minute of it.
Political conservatism often leads to religious tradition. We live today in a world stripped of what was, in the pre-modern era, an instinctive awareness of the sacred. Thanks to Darwin and other influences, from the mid-nineteenth century on, the truth of religion could no longer universally be taken for granted. My own emerging conservatism at Brown drove me to reexamine my inherited faith. I took my search to the Brown Hillel. At this Jewish gathering place, which was then housed in a barn-like white building on Brown Street, students of various denominations would gather. It was a sweet, humble, welcoming place without pretensions. Its emphasis was less on religion than on culture. I was brought there at first by, of all people, the object of my unrequited infatuation: Tamara.
Most people whose college experience changed their lives will tell you that their fellow students had the profoundest effect on them. That’s what happened to me. Raised secular Jewish in Texas, Tamara had as a high school student lived for a year in England, where she’d fallen in love with a boy who was an Orthodox Jew. This led to a wild crush on both him and on traditional Judaism. As a result, she’d become an Orthodox Jew and exchanged her English name for the Hebrew Tamara.
To me there was something irresistibly exotic about Tamara. Here was a girl who addressed groups as “y’all” and scorned the liberal Judaism we had both grown up in. Yet politically she was left-wing, and she enjoyed shocking me with her opinions. Bisexuality was a favorite theme of hers. In this, she had been influenced by her study of “theory,” which made a big fuss of romanticizing unconventional sexual practices. I remember once pointing out to her over lunch at Hillel that, in the book of Leviticus, homosexuality is prohibited as an abomination. She was so offended by this that she rushed out of the building in tears.
I was charmed by the contradictions she encompassed, no less than by her adorable freckles. We would be sitting in Loui’s, the surrounding air thickened by fumes of stuff frying in lard, with her latest incomprehensible semiotics paper about some dead Frenchman between us. While I joked about how impossible I found it to understand the jargon-heavy writing that was considered the norm in her classes, she would delightedly sneer at the non-kosher food in front of me. “Even the coffee here is trefe [non-kosher],” she would say.
It was partly my envy of her commitment and partly a simple desire to have an excuse to spend time with her that motivated me to try out Orthodox Judaism. I started attending religious services at Hillel. There, I perceived that the Orthodox prayer group, or minyan, had something in its loud-spirited worship that I hadn’t come across before. A friend of mine who is an art critic once told me that he first came to appreciate the most austere abstract painting when he was visiting a gallery that had some highly praised but in fact mediocre specimens on the wall. By chance in his pocket he had a postcard with a Jackson Pollock painting on the front. He held the postcard up beside the painting on the wall, and the difference immediately struck him. The Pollock had a “buzz” to it, he said, a buzz of crackling energy and life.
Orthodox prayer buzzed. When Tamara and her friends sang the sixteenth-century mystical hymn “L’chah Dodi” (“Come, My Beloved”), welcoming the Sabbath on Friday night, the urgency of their singing was that of the bridegroom running to meet his bride, which is exactly the symbolism that the hymn was written to evoke. This was nothing like the staid, dutiful singing at the Reform temple where I had grown up, which recalled not the excitement of the bridegroom but the boredom of grade-school kids reciting a multiplication table. Tamara and her friends stirred something in me spiritually that previously had lain asleep.
My attraction to Tamara led me to take first halting steps toward rethinking my assumptions about what makes for religion that lives, or buzzes, and religion that seems already dead. The Bible, I’ve since realized, has a precedent for everything that’s really interesting in life and this is no exception. My discovery of my Jewish religious roots, however, raised disturbing questions about my personal identity, questions that would drive me to further rethink basic questions about faith, questions that Tamara, true to form, didn’t hesitate to boldly, even rudely, articulate.
“You’re not even Jewish,” she sneered at me in her arch, teasing way. And she was right, strictly speaking. Though I had been raised in an ethnically Jewish home, I had been adopted as an infant, and my birth parents were non-Jews. Tamara advised me to visit a local Orthodox rabbi for advice on the question of my converting formally to Judaism.
When I went to visit the rabbi, he gave me a book to read but little other encouragement. Conversion in Jewish thinking is not a light matter, and I’m sure he could see that I was not ready to make any radical changes in my way of life, the kind that Judaism asks. That would come later.
What was important for me was the irritant that Tamara had planted in my soul, the question about myself—was I a Jew or not?—that stayed with me until I finally resolved it years later. At Brown, though, Tamara suggested that since I was staying in Providence for Passover—she would be out of town—I should share a seder meal with a local Orthodox family. Always eager to ingratiate myself with her, I did so, joining a family associated with the outreach-oriented Chasidic sect Chabad. I can’t say I was enamored of the experience, but something one of the other guests told me turned out to be a turning point in my life. He was a young man from Brooklyn, studying to be a rabbi.
He noticed that I understood little of the Haggadah, the seder text, and he tried to explain a fundamental point of it. At Passover, he said, every Jew should see himself as if he was part of the Exodus from Egyptian slavery that the festival recalls. Judaism, like Jungian psychology, postulates a sort of racial memory passed down through generations, not in books but through something like spiritual genes. Nervously, I broached to the young man the subject of my adoption. It seemed that, as far as racial memories go, I was out of luck, I said. I had no claim on Jewish genes, but I realized at that moment that I wanted them.
My new friend looked warmly at me and issued a sort of prophecy. “I’m not sure what God has in store for you,” he said, “but I’ve got a feeling that someday you may become a convert. Do you know what a neshamah is?” I said no. “It’s a soul. Every soul contains a spark from God. All the sparks belonging to all the Jews who would ever live were present at Mt. Sinai. All the converts who would ever live were there, too. When one of these sparks is born in the body of a gentile, it seeks to return to God.”
That was the first time the thought entered my mind that God might have a particular plan for my soul. In Hebrew, the word for this minute divine attention to and involvement in the details of our lives is Hashgachah. In English, it is, of course, Providence.
The unexpected influence of Brown continued to follow me when I left the city of Providence. I was still a spiritual dabbler, not yet committed to Judaism. But after graduation, a batch of clips from my columns for the Herald got me my job at National Review. At the time, NR was a haven of traditional-minded Catholics, a tribute to the spiritual influence of the founder, Bill Buckley. A young woman I met and dated there, the daughter of a professional right-wing Catholic anti-abortion activist, filled a Tamara-like role for me. Once again, I was involved with a girl whose spiritual life I envied.
Wanting what she had, a relationship with God, I considered Catholicism but ultimately was provoked by spiritual envy to look more deeply at the religion I had inherited by default from childhood, Judaism.
Now that I’m a father, I wonder whether my children would benefit from going to Brown. A conservative and religious parent might prefer to see his son or daughter attend a piously traditional college. But a parent shouldn’t expect a smart and independent young person to emerge as if from a printing press, inked with exactly the same thoughts and impressions every other student emerges with.
Education, as Judaism understands it, is both provocative and unpredictable, as the case of Abraham, the first Hebrew patriarch and prophet, demonstrates.
Shortly before Abraham’s wife, Sarah, gave birth to his son and spiritual heir, Isaac, Abraham and Sarah moved to the Philistine city of Gerar. Why would this father of all Jewish fathers subject his son’s earliest upbringing to the influence of a city that was urbane, cosmopolitan, and secular, a city where, Abraham observed, “There is but no fear of God in this place”? Apparently, as Jewish rabbinic interpreters have suggested, it was because Abraham valued the challenge the city would pose to Isaac. Spiritual growth is aided by provocation.
But as with any growth, a good education takes unexpected twists and turns. The Hebrew word Torah, which broadly means “teaching,” hints at this. Educators may wish to plant certain ideas in their students, but what happens, in fact, is unpredictable. Ideas can grow in the most fantastically unexpected directions. I believe that a traditionalist father or mother should consider the advantage that Abraham saw for his son Isaac in being challenged by neighbors holding views diametrically opposed to those of his parents. There is a danger in this, of course. But so too is there a risk in subjecting your child to a monotonous upbringing surrounded by mirror images of his parents. The risk is boredom. The risk is also the possibility that the child will never learn how to defend his tradition. When he finds it challenged after formal education is over, he may find that he lacks any intellectual armor to ward off blows from hostile secularists.
For my children, I hope for a firm commitment to their tradition, but grounded in independent thought and strong enough to answer critics. Maybe Providence will lead them to Brown.
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. His new book, How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to be a Conservative, will be published in June.