Polite citizen-to-citizen discourse on political issues has become increasingly difficult to find in recent years. This is especially true in colleges and universities across the country, where students are expected to debate and argue with their classmates to develop their opinions. This begs the question: if college-aged students are afraid to engage in civil discourse on political affairs with their peers, how can we expect them to do so in the future when many of them will lead our country?
Growing up in the early 2000s, this lack of debate was anything but obvious to me. My parents, who were very civic-minded, saw no reason to hide their opinions and political convictions from my brother and me. They’ve always bragged about being first to the polls on Election Day in our small town of 200, and I even volunteered a few months before my 18th birthday to work as an election judge for the 2020 presidential primary.
With a mother serving under the Department of Defense and a father who was a conservative, hardworking farmer, political views in our household were hardly divisive. At first, it was not obvious to me that politics could be such a taboo subject in a public setting.
My neighbor friends and family often had signs for the same conservative candidates in their backyards, and discussions of political views were not uncommon. When I was in high school, I looked forward to analyzing everyday American history and current affairs with my left-leaning high school teachers. Anxious to be around young people who loved politics and government as much as I did, I jumped at the chance to attend a top university far from home to engage in heated discussions about politics and government. I wanted to be a lawyer, after all, and constitutional and political debates were all I wanted to do.
It was this dream that brought me to the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, a long 10 hours from my hometown in Illinois. UGA brought together several niche qualities that I was looking for in an institution. It is a large, diverse university in the epitome of a Southern state. In his small school of political science, there must have been students and teachers who came from both sides of the political aisle and who were open to opinions from across the political spectrum, right?
It wasn’t until the first semester of my sophomore year that I realized I might have been wrong about that assumption.
I remember sitting in the back row of the class, worried at first because I was the only 19-year-old sitting in a graduate class with a 30-year-old Ph.D. students talk about their marriage and their children. UGA allows a small number of students to take 8000-level graduate courses during their undergraduate years to count for honors credit. I would quickly learn that age wouldn’t be the only thing my classmates and I disagree on.
Growing up, I had always been the quiet kid in the class, unless I actually knew I had the right answer. My mother had taught me to be aware of other people’s opinions and to carefully consider my own thoughts before spitting them on others. I knew this quality would be useful in the upper classes where I significantly outnumbered those older than me who did not share my political views.
I attended a number of evening classes where I barely spoke. Instead, I sat back and soaked up the smart connections made by my teacher and fellow students. I thrived listening to students who had spent their academic careers debating and analyzing government and political institutions. Very quickly, I noticed how often my peers referred to left-leaning politicians when promoting the positive policies adopted by the American Congress. Also, I noticed how conservatives, or Republicans for that matter, were usually portrayed in a negative light, if mentioned at all.
The overwhelming agreement on political views among this dedicated group of political science students came as no surprise to me. By then, I had taken many classes with outspoken leftist students. However, the fact that none of my peers seemed to hold conservative or right-wing views on the topics we discussed was more than a little odd.
After one of my sophomore classes, I remember another silent student approaching me. She had noticed the sticker on my laptop promoting a conservative candidate I had worked for, and she asked me if I was a Republican. I told her I was, and she said she was shocked to find someone who was on the same side of the political aisle as her. We walked together for a while, and she told me how reluctant she was to talk in class among her fellow leftists.
This performance threw me for a loop. She was a 24-year-old master’s student and attended a popular school in the South. Surely there were other right-wingers in his program, weren’t there? And surely the political differences between her and her classmates didn’t mean she was completely left out of most conversations?
I had just discovered that she was the only curator in her cohort of graduate students. She told me how she chose to focus on her research and avoid discussing politics with her classmates. I was shocked at how someone in her position avoided discussing major elements of her field of study with her peers because she feared the judgment and broken friendships that might ensue. Turns out polite talk about politics wasn’t what either of us found in our programs. Instead, students at our school avoided controversial topics and opinions that differed from those around them. Important issues were not addressed or were only represented by one side of the aisle.
Whether you consider yourself a Democrat or a Republican, this is a question that should matter to all of us. Our country was built by Founders who made it their mission to debate controversial topics among themselves to better shape our democracy. Our government’s framework requires our leaders to debate and discuss issues among themselves and with their constituents in an attempt to make the best decisions for the good of all.
When students attend major colleges and universities across the country, they should feel free, even encouraged, to discuss relevant policy issues with those who might disagree with them. The students who attend these schools are part of the next generation that will lead our country. If they cannot engage in political discussion at the university level, how are we supposed to expect them to as future leaders of our nation?
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