Growing up Right

Whine, piss, moan: Antics of a conservative in the making, claims Cal professor Jack Block. Some students beg to differ.

Growing up in France, young conservative Amaury Gallais recalls being a “fat, happy, little kid.”

“Sometimes I was whiny,” says the 21-year-old UC Berkeley junior. “But sometimes I was resilient. And sometimes I was intolerant. Sometimes I was confident. Sometimes I wasn’t. Hey, I was a kid.”

Gallais felt the need to explain his childhood last week after professor emeritus Jack Block released the study “Nursery School Personality and Political Orientation Two Decades Later.” Block concluded that little boys and girls who grew up to become liberals “were self-reliant, energetic, somewhat dominating, relatively under-controlled and resilient,” while those who adopted Gallais’ ideology were “indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and relatively over-controlled and vulnerable.”

Not to mention “easily offended.”

“This study is baseless,” says Gallais, who is managing editor of California Patriot, a student-run magazine for conservatives. “And ridiculous.”

After the Patriot’s nineteen-year-old opinion editor, James Fullmer, read about the study in the Toronto Star, he huddled with fellow campus Republicans and sent out a press release attempting to refute Block’s work. It only drew more media interest to the notion that antisocial kids turned out conservative. NPR reported the story with a detectable amount of glee, and much of the following coverage happily accepted Block’s conclusions.

“Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints?” asked a writer from the Chicago Tribune. “Chances are he grew up to be a conservative.”

A columnist from The Independent of London put it another way: “If your child is insecure and clingy, brace yourself: the worst is yet to come. … The fruit of your loins is a Young Tory in the making.”

Block’s conclusions were bold enough to warrant such coverage, if not quite so colorful. He described schoolgirls who will grow up to be conservative as “fearful and tearful,” as well as, “quiet, neat, compliant … hoping for help from the adult world.” Those women grew up to be “uneasy with uncertainties, conventional … emotionally bland, appearing calm, and candid but also somewhat moralistic.”

Young conservative men, meanwhile, “display an egocentric self-image, with an orientation toward the virtues of power, a willingness to offer advice, and a concern about their status within the pecking order.”

Once they got wind of all this, Gallais and Fullmer certainly lived up to the part about offering advice. They fired off a letter to the campus president’s office denouncing the study and challenging Block’s methods, noting that his survey size was only 95 children.

“That’s it!” Gallais says. “Ninety-five — who all grew up in Berkeley in the late ’60s. Of course the conservative kids were insecure.”

Psychologists and political scientists have been drawn “to understanding the associations between personality and political persuasion” since at least the 1940s. But Block noted that those were after-the-fact inquiries. His study claims to be the first to determine how liberals and conservatives differ in their early childhood years before they’ve developed into political beings.

Block’s recent findings are a sidebar to an ambitious study that he and his now-deceased wife, Jeanne, began in the late ’60s, when they evaluated 125 local children and set out to follow their psychological development. The children, who at-tended two nursery schools in Berkeley and Oakland between 1969 and 1971, were first assessed by their teachers at age three, then again the following year.

The psychologist checked in with the sample several times over the course of two decades and, in 1989, once the subjects reached age 23, his assessors questioned them on their political views. The subjects filled out queries ranking their answers on a six-point continuum from “Very Liberal” to “Very Conservative.” Abortion rights, flag burning, welfare — all the hot topic issues were covered.

But of his 95 subjects, Block found that “relatively few participants tilt[ed] toward conservatism.”

That admission suggested to campus Republicans that Block’s sample size was too small to justify his conclusions. At least one political researcher agreed.

“For kids whose parents were liberal — no doubt the majority in that time and place — the likely very liberally-run nursery school would be a comfortable place, consistent with their home environment, with teachers similar to their own parents,” University of Arizona social psychologist Jeff Greenberg wrote in an interview via e-mail. “In contrast,” added Greenberg, who self-identifies as a liberal, “for children coming from conservative families, the nursery school may have been an unusual, uncomfortable place, with rules and ideas very different from what they were used to at home.”

Conversely, Patriot opinion editor Fullmer recalls his conservative views being nourished by his parents and community during his childhood in Orange County. “I was very confident about being conservative in my politics,” he says. “Still am.”

“From my experience,” he adds, “if you look at students at Berkeley, the ones who are insecure, worried, and whining about their causes — they’re usually involved in leftist activism.”

Gallais says he came to Berkeley partly for the ideological challenge of being conservative at such a famously liberal campus. “At Berkeley, we know we’re outnumbered,” he says. “We stick together. At the same time, we’re constantly hearing great speakers in our classes, lecturers, professors — all from the left.

“I witnessed firsthand the consequences of more socialist policies,” he adds. “What’s going on in France right now is the direct result of the failure of a socialist government to maintain a productive society. It was witnessing those things that made me realize that the conservative approach — smaller government, freer markets — make more sense and are more effective. It wasn’t my childhood.”

The two Patriot staffers hope their actions will bring awareness to what they see as the study’s flaws.

“We realized valuable time and money — money especially — were being spent on that research,” Gallais says. “Meanwhile our tuitions are going up, prominent researchers are forced to leave because the campus can’t afford new labs for them, and this guy is spending taxpayer money to do this kind of research?”

The student considered another argument.

“And let’s say this guy’s research is actually right. Who really cares?”

Professor Block, now retired, declined to discuss his findings on the phone. He replied tersely to an interview request.

“I don’t talk to media,” he said, before agreeing to e-mail a copy of his study, then hanging up.

When asked via e-mail whether his allusion to the “relatively few” conservatives in his study masked the fact that his conclusions were only based on the experience of a handful of people, he wrote back, “Absolutely wrong.” He dismissed Greenberg’s criticisms and declined to address them.

Asked to share the data from his study, he replied that he didn’t have it handy, nor would reporters receive a copy anytime soon — “at least not from me.” Researchers at Harvard had the data, he added, and in time they would post it online, but only for “qualified researchers” who would be granted access to a special Web site.

“About the only suggestion I can offer is to find out something about our respective national reputations,” he wrote.

Finally, encouraged to place his own political beliefs on the study’s six-point continuum, Block wrote that he resented the request and its implication, and demanded not to be bothered again.

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