America’s road to healthier political discourse starts on campus
Understanding the arguments of people who think differently from us allows us to better understand and refine our own beliefs. It also gives us the opportunity to identify points of common ground.
College campuses have traditionally been bastions of free thought, intellectual exploration, and open dialogue. However, in recent years the rise of political intolerance on college campuses and fall in constructive dialogue have cast a shadow over these institutions.
In 2021, two-thirds of college students said it was acceptable to shout down a speaker in order to stop them from speaking on campus. Nearly half of rising college sophomores said they likely wouldn’t live with someone who supported the opposing candidate in the 2020 presidential election. More than 80% of college students said they self-censor at least some of the time on campus, including 52% of professors who fear losing their jobs or reputations because of a misunderstanding or statement in class taken out of context.
Colleges and universities are designed to produce critical thinkers who can tackle society’s most difficult problems. But when students are not exchanging ideas with one another on campus, they are being deprived of the opportunity to acquire the skills they will need to turn their ideas into effective solutions in the real world. Public discourse, community relationships, and policymaking all rely on our ability to engage each other constructively. If college graduates are not equipped with these skills, our society will suffer for it.
College campuses are among the only places in society that act as microcosms of the United States as a whole. At state universities in particular, the student body is composed of young people from a diversity of backgrounds, income levels, races, genders, birthplaces, and cultures. Students are forced to figure out how to navigate these differences, but many of them realize that this diversity is not just something we should tolerate, it should be celebrated.
Given the diverse makeup of our universities, there is little wonder why over the years we’ve seen numerous social movements emerge on college campuses. One prominent example is feminist movements, which gained significant traction on campuses in the 1960s and 70s when student-organized women’s rights groups demanded equal treatment and opportunities both within and outside of the university. In 2017, the #MeToo movement gained traction as students organized awareness campaigns, protests, and support networks to address sexual assault and harassment happening on campus. Both movements sparked broader societal conversations on gender equality, and sexual assault and harassment.
The environmental movement has also found fertile ground on college campuses with students leading the charge on climate activism. In recent years we have seen a growing number of students urging their universities to divest from fossil fuels and adopt sustainable practices. These efforts have helped raise awareness about the need for environmental conservation and have influenced wider societal discussions on sustainability, the effects of fast fashion, and they have challenged businesses to create more eco-friendly products.
The lack of dialogue on campuses precludes certain social movements from ever arising, and the ones that do emerge are less effective, since the students advancing them are unlikely to be familiar with the arguments of their detractors. Understanding the arguments of people who think differently from us allows us to better understand and refine our own beliefs. It also gives us the opportunity to identify points of common ground and compromise. Graduates who have participated in constructive political conversations are more likely to approach political discourse with open-mindedness, respect, and empathy, and also carry those values into their careers, communities, and interactions with others. Those who have not will only further inflame the divisions in our society and make it more difficult for us to make progress together.
To counteract this concerning trend, universities must actively promote programs and initiatives in which students are encouraged to engage with different perspectives. Luckily, there are spaces popping up on campuses across the country that serve precisely this purpose, and I am grateful to work for one of them! BridgeUSA is a youth-led, non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering constructive political conversations on college campuses through hosting panels, debates, and workshops.
BridgeUSA does more than just provide a platform for students to engage with one another. We make sure to structure our events to ensure that discussions are always inclusive of all students and their perspectives. We believe that it isn’t enough just to have these conversations—in order to create a campus environment in which all students feel safe to discuss complex and sensitive social and political issues, we must base these discussions in empathy and understanding.
A recent poll by Starts With Us and YouGov showed that 87% of Americans are tired of how divided we are politically. Between the influence of political extremes in our politics, the loss of community on campus and the increase in hostility towards those who think differently from us, it has never been more crucial to teach the next generation of Americans the skills for constructive dialogue. College campuses have been the incubators of numerous social movements throughout history. Today, they should be leading the charge to bring our country together and get us talking to one another again.
By empowering college students to engage in dialogue across differences, welcome constructive disagreement, and seek to better understand each other, we can build stronger communities and shape a culture that values cooperation, empathy and common-ground solutions.
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