Expanding civil discourse, Ole by Ole
According to the Pew Research Center, partisan animosity is at its highest in more than two decades — just over a third of Americans still believe that talking with people with differing views leads to finding common ground.
At St. Olaf College, graduating Oles in 2017 reported they were far more likely to have had discussions with people of a differing race, faith, or income level than with people who had differing political views.
We no longer agree to disagree. It’s a problem that Sally ’71 and Alexander Bracken took to heart.
“We thought how great it would be for St. Olaf to bring a focus on civil discourse, to bring students from diverse sides of any issue together and create an environment that would really allow students to talk openly across the spectrum,” say the Brackens. “That’s what a liberal arts education is all about.”
In 2016 the Brackens established two endowed funds to support the Public Affairs Conversation at St. Olaf — one for its programming, the other for related internships. These gifts are part of the college’s For the Hill and Beyond $200 million comprehensive campaign that is raising support for such high-impact academic practices like these. By engaging Oles in exploring and debating contested ideals that have shaped American discourse over time, as well as contemporary controversies, their gift and the Public Affairs Conversation is helping Oles build the skills necessary to participate in civil debate and public affairs.
We thought how great it would be for St. Olaf to bring a focus on civil discourse, to bring students from diverse sides of any issue together and create an environment that would really allow students to talk openly across the spectrum. That’s what a liberal arts education is all about.Sally ’71 and Alexander Bracken
“We want students to critically reflect on their own ideological commitments,” says the conversation’s director and Associate Professor of Philosophy Michael Fuerstein, “and to see how reasonable people may hold views different from their own — to think and engage in argument and with others’ viewpoints in the fullest possible way.”
A two-course academic sequence, the first course examines ideals and tensions during the founding and history of the republic; it also investigates normative perspectives that are the foundation of the contemporary debate. The second blends normative and empirical analysis of contemporary public policy. Public affairs internships at governmental, nonprofit, and corporate agencies complement classroom learning, as do events sponsored by St. Olaf’s Institute for Freedom and Community which undergirds the conversation.
Ezra Garcia ’19 was part of the Public Affairs Conversation last year; he now helps inform the programming of the Institute for Freedom and Community as part of its Director’s Council. A political science major, he is interested in pursuing nonprofit management and bringing about transformative change.
“The Public Affairs Conversation was what I really wanted out of my college experience,” says Garcia. “It’s about the exchange of ideas, being exposed to a range of viewpoints, bringing about tough discussion because it’s important to learn you can. That was interesting to me.”
Ezra Garcia ’19Taking time to listen, to learn about other people’s motivations and why they do and fight for certain things — it helped me hone in on what I really believed and get to know more of myself. More results come with that kind of attitude — it’s something I didn’t think before.
Among their assignments, Oles in the Public Affairs Conversation last spring had to find and interview someone with a substantially different perspective, then vigorously research and defend a position with which they substantially disagreed. It’s an assignment that provided Garcia deep insight into what people who disagree with them think and feel, and the work necessary to include them in discourse and bring about change.
“Most of my life I’ve been surrounded by the same group of people,” says Garcia. “Taking time to listen, to learn about other people’s motivations and why they do and fight for certain things — it helped me hone in on what I really believed and get to know more of myself. More results come with that kind of attitude — it’s something I didn’t think before.”