St. Olaf College | News

A new conversation about public affairs

Students in St. Olaf College’s new Public Affairs Conversation had dinner with Sen. Richard Lugar (center) when he visited campus to discuss the Iran nuclear deal and American partisanship.

American politics and social issues are increasingly polarized. Policymakers talk, but don’t listen. Civil disagreement has almost ceased to exist.

All of those are issues that St. Olaf College’s new Public Affairs Conversation seeks to address by bringing students together to critically examine all facets of current social debates from interdisciplinary perspectives.

The program is a two-course series combined with a paid internship. The first semester focuses on normative perspectives and debates that lay the framework for modern American political thought. The second semester builds on the first by considering current contentious issues in American politics. The Public Affairs Conversation creates a space in which students learn civil disagreement.

“I hope that students see the strengths of other opinions and understand how complicated political views are,” Professor of Religion and Philosophy Edmund Santurri says. “Appreciating complexity is a first step on the way to civil exchange.”

The Public Affairs Conversation is one of six Conversation programs at St. Olaf. The Conversation programs create learning communities designed to encourage critical thought, active listening, and fruitful discussion through the exploration of diverse opinions.

Philosopher Charles Mills from Northwestern University discusses "Liberalism and Racial Justice."
Philosopher Charles Mills from Northwestern University discusses “Liberalism and Racial Justice.”

Students from a wide range of academic disciplines are encouraged to participate in the Public Affairs Conversation. The majors in this year’s cohort range from biology and environmental studies to English and history to Asian studies and political science.

“There are a lot of perspectives in the classroom, and it’s awesome to hear what everyone brings to the table,” Griffin Edwards ’17 says.

Santurri is teaching the first semester of the Public Affairs Conversation this year. Professor of Political Science Daniel Hofrenning will teach the second semester.

Context for discussion
During the first semester students have discussed conflicting political views and analyzed their philosophical and historical foundations. For example, students contrasted Thomas Paine’s commitment to radical political change rooted in universal principles with Edmund Burke’s commitment to incremental change grounded in his respect for established institutions. Paine argued that if a government did not meet principles of equality and freedom, the people should form a new government. Burke preferred to work within the system to effect needed change.

Students in the Political Affairs Conversation read "The Great Debate" and contrasted the approaches of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine.
Students in the Political Affairs Conversation read “The Great Debate” and contrasted the approaches of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine.

“I have been able to frame current events in the context of various historical debates about political thought,” Emma Lind ’17, a psychology major, says.

Students have also discussed a wide range of political and social theories that have unfolded throughout American history. They have considered the merits of multiple, different feminist perspectives. bell hooks, a recent feminist writer, notes that the specific needs and objectives of feminists vary depending on race and social class. Another feminist writer, Christina Hoff Sommers, argues for a moderate feminism that includes the interests of mothers and acknowledges the successes of the American feminist movement.

Students in the class have also contrasted various approaches to achieving racial equality, including those of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Cornel West. These perspectives are especially valuable for understanding the Black Lives Matter campaign that continues to work toward racial equality.

In addition, students have considered conservative perspectives including libertarianism and justifications for the free-market. These viewpoints have raised questions like: Should the government regulate citizens’ lives? Should the free-market run its course?

The course has also addressed the issue of religious influence in public affairs. Do religious approaches to public policy questions ostracize and restrict the freedoms and rights of non-religious citizens? Does restricting religious perspectives infringe unfairly on free speech and the freedom of religion?

“The greatest benefit of the Public Affairs Conversation has been the ability to have a space to discuss these issues constructively and respectfully,” says Edwards, who is majoring in Russian and international development.

Ethicist Timothy Jackson from Emory University discusses abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment.

Guest speakers
Another benefit of the program is the guest lecturers who visit campus through the college’s Institute for Freedom and Community. These guest speakers are incorporated into coursework and class discussions.

Students have heard Senator Richard Lugar speak about the Iran Nuclear Deal and the problems of American partisanship; philosopher Charles Mills present his theory of racial justice; economist Deirdre McCloskey discuss capitalism and wealth; and ethicist Timothy Jackson speak about abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment.

“The guest speakers bring our reading material to life. It is one thing to read about a person’s argument, but it is another to actually hear them articulate their thoughts,” Lind says.

In addition to hearing the lectures, students were able to meet with lecturers in informal settings. All of the Public Affairs Conversation students had dinner with Lugar. A few students from the class had lunch with Mills, and some were also able to have dinner with McCloskey. Jackson attended class the day following his lecture. These opportunities allow students to ask questions and probe theories in greater depth.

Internship opportunity
As part of the program, students complete a paid internship during Interim, second semester, or the summer. The internship gives students the opportunity to apply what they learn in the classroom and encounter the social issues discussed. As students complete the internship, they write reflections on what they are learning.

Nathan Detweiler ’16 has secured an internship with the Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency, an organization that trains people in nonviolent conflict resolution.

“Because I am committed to a vocation as a peace builder, this internship paves the path for future possibilities and will provide valuable experience as I think about life after St. Olaf,” Detweiler says.