During her four years at an East Coast liberal arts college, Ali Saueressig always felt the tug of home, deep in the rural Midwest. For all her commitment to progressive causes — fighting climate change prominent among them — she loved the place where she’d grown up, a conservative Christian community of dairy farmers. She thrived at her elite institution, but the disconnect gnawed at her: “What’s the purpose of what I’m studying if I can’t talk to people back home?”
With the approach of the 2020 elections, our white-hot national discourse is only amping up. Tragedies that should bring us together drive us further apart. Amidst the rise of white nationalism and anti-immigrant fervor, we seem to be losing our way — and our humanity.
Like every concerned citizen, I’ve been grappling with how to best respond to the crisis of this moment. And as a college president, I’ve been especially focused on the role of higher education in this age of animosity.
Our nation has long looked to colleges and universities to serve a range of public goods: To train a modern work force, to prepare students to make a living, and to push forward the frontiers of knowledge through research and development, to name a few.
But at this historical moment, I believe we would do well to home in on another mission: Equipping students with the tools they need to talk across difference — politics, race, economic class, and the myriad other fault lines of 21st century life. To prepare them to “talk to people back home” — as well as far beyond.
What might this look like? For Ali Saueressig it entailed a seminar in public writing, where she interviewed a well-known evangelical pastor about “Creation Care” — a movement inspired by the belief that the environment is God’s creation and requires human protection. She explored how to talk about climate change in ways that would resonate with the conservative farmers she’d grown up with. She saw the power of reframing in action: As she later described in a campus presentation, an Evangelical Environmental Network campaign resulted in the submission of more than 145,000 comments opposing an EPA rule that would roll back mercury protections. And most important of all, she realized many evangelical conservatives cared about the same issues she did and that common ground was possible.
The public writing seminars — Ali completed two — proved to be a highlight of her college experience. “They were the #1 thing that helped me get outside my echo chamber,” she said. “They helped me figure out how to talk in ways that people can hear.” (Launched at Wellesley College in 2013, the Calderwood Seminars in Public Writing are expanding to an additional nine public and private colleges and universities across the country, including Smith College in Northampton, Mass.)
This is not to say that we can somehow magically erase our many and profound differences through language tweaks — that would be absurd. The goal is far more modest, if no less significant: To prepare students for the reality that how we express our thoughts — our choices about words and framing — has the power both to open doors and to slam them shut. To help students develop a far more robust rhetorical toolkit, to hone skills that steer them toward shared values and common ground.
Such skills are essential to becoming active and effective citizens, to developing what Harvard’s Danielle Allen calls “participatory readiness.” Still, they too often get short shrift on the nation’s campuses. The campus speech wars have taken place against the backdrop of an enduring faith in the free marketplace of ideas, where good ideas thrive and bad ones fall when subjected to the light of reason.
Yet, this marketplace is a rhetorical trope, not an empirical truth. The Enlightenment-infused conviction that — given sufficient information — human beings will make rational decisions is all too often at odds with reality, an insight at the core of behavioral economics. In my own field of medicine and public health, we’ve seen this in people’s refusal to get vaccinations or have their children vaccinated, with fact-based arguments only strengthening false beliefs. This widely documented phenomenon has been dubbed “the backfire effect.” Rational? Not at all. Human nature? Absolutely.
If students are to leverage their knowledge and ideas — to have the biggest possible impact in the world — they will need skills that go beyond rational debate and critical thinking. Some have argued that ‘snowflake’ students will be ill-prepared for the world unless they learn to defend their beliefs through robust debate, and I take the point. But they will be equally ill-prepared if we give them an inflated sense of logic’s power. It’s often said that the goal of liberal arts education is to teach not only content but also how to think. To that I would add that we need to teach not only how to think but also how to connect — a core competency for life in a healthy democracy.
This perspective draws support from research. At Tufts University, the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education looked at campuses where students voted significantly above and below predicted rates. Of the seven campuses with high voter participation, four had a first-year course geared to helping students communicate across difference, according to Institute Director Nancy L. Thomas. Among the topics these courses explored: How to frame issues effectively and explore common ground, skills that are best practiced in a diverse community.
To be sure, an academic course is just one way to prepare students for the duties of citizenship. What I’ve come to think of as the Curriculum of Connection cannot exist within a single silo. To the contrary, it needs to infuse every aspect of campus life, from how we teach and interact with students in the classroom; to how we organize student affairs and government; to how we support and foster residential life.
In 1932, US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis coined the phrase “laboratories of democracy” for a system in which states conduct policy experiments as test grounds for the nation at large. At this pivotal moment, I believe that colleges have an analogous opportunity. I can think of no setting better suited for exploring ways to talk across our differences. And at the start of this academic year, I can think of no more important role for the nation’s campuses to play.
Dr. Paula A. Johnson is the 14th President of Wellesley College. Before assuming Wellesley’s presidency in 2016, she was the Grayce A. Young Family Professor in Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School and a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.