We live in a country where political parties are at the heart of the system, controlling everything from our legislative agenda to our rhetoric. After gaining prominence in the early stages of our country with the differing ideologies of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, a two-party system took form and has guided the nature of American politics ever since.
In moderation, political parties can be effective in influencing compromise. But, they have severely surpassed that point and are now barriers forbidding mediation and common ground. These barriers create controversy in college classrooms — especially discussion-based ones — that can prevent some students from participating.
While some might see these parties as the core of democracy — a vital part of our system — I disagree. Instead, I agree with George Washington who warned against the emergence of political parties in his farewell address in 1796. In warning against the danger of parties in our country, it is safe to say Washington would be disappointed at where we ended up today.
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The U.S. has never been so divided, and it shows in our inability to effectively legislate and govern. Studies conducted at Pew Research Center over the past few years illustrate the increasingly sharp disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on a long list of issues including the economy, racial justice and climate change. These disagreements have led to stalemates in Congress and increased difficulty in passing effective legislation.
This polarization’s impact goes far beyond legislation and has permeated into various parts of society, especially college campuses. In my personal experience as a University of Wisconsin student, I know a number of people who refuse to be friends with, date or even hang out with members of the opposing political party. This phenomenon comes to the forefront in class discussions, where these topics come up in curriculum for students to discuss.
As a political science major, my classes require heavy political discussions that seem increasingly uncomfortable in a polarized society like ours. I used to feel comfortable stating my opinions and arguing with my classmates, sometimes even finding that it made learning the material easier. But, that is no longer the case. I now experience anxiety when speaking about my opinions in classes for fear I will get attacked for them.
There are moments when I want to participate in class — and even think my point would be really productive for the discussion — but I refrain from fear of being shot down by my classmates or professor with differing ideologies. Discussions have grown duller and students more restrained because of this unfortunate divide.
Bryant Saunders, a writer for The Utah Statesman, articulated this idea well in a recent article.
“Students see polarization within the classroom — usually when a professor or classmate discusses a polarizing political idea and is supported or shut down,” Saunders said. “This has a negative effect on classroom environments, as it merely continues the cycle of polarizing behavior and stops college students from actually learning.”
Saunders also discussed how, as this problem persists and the country grows more divided, it could damage the physical, emotional and social health of our citizens. I think students will be some of the most impacted. This group directly receives whatever their professors teach them on a daily basis and professors are some of the most opinionated, leading to some pushing of their ideals, whether it’s intentional or not.
A research analysis published in the peer-reviewed publication Communication Education in 2010 on student participation in the classroom found, “when students perceive their instructors as having similar backgrounds or attitudes as them, they are more likely to participate, and less likely to participate if their instructor’s political views are different from their own.”
If this was the case in 2010, when our country was more politically moderate, it makes sense that classroom discussions have become less interesting as student participation is impacted by their professor’s beliefs.
Many of my previous political beliefs came from professors I admired and the concepts they taught me. It was not until recently that I realized I do not necessarily believe in the same things those teaching me do, nor do I have to. Class discussions should not be politically skewed, limiting their efficacy, nor should the things they teach. Instead, it should provide students with the information they need to form their own views and discuss them respectfully with other members of society.
It will take more than just UW to limit the consequences of partisan polarization on college students, especially because the issue must be addressed at its roots to be combatted entirely. But that does not mean UW can’t do anything. In order to return to the days of open conversation and effective educational discussions, professors could create political classrooms that teach students to engage in controversial discussions without submitting to the polarization eminent in political talk.
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These classrooms would encourage difficult conversations on difficult topics in order to teach students how to respectfully handle disagreement. If successful, this type of classroom discussion could decrease partisan polarization and send more understanding and collaborative human beings into society.
For these classrooms to work, professors should refrain from mentioning any of their own political beliefs and encourage students to be respectful while engaging in controversial topics, punishing those who fail to do so with grade deductions or similar accountability measures.
We may not be able to single-handedly depoliticize our entire society, but we can change the political nature of this campus. It requires everyone — students and professors alike — to have open minds and respect while in class and at university functions. Only when we can once again feel comfortable in class without fear of verbal attacks or judgment from peers will partisan polarization stop limiting American education.
Elizabeth Ellick ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and pursuing a certificate in gender and women’s studies.