“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life.”
— Barack Obama, 44th president of the United States, during his farewell address on January 9, 2017
Obama’s advice during the final speech of his presidency addressed cultural climate after November’s divisive election: Voters on both ends of the political spectrum frequently harbored anger against the opposing candidate and those that supported them. Expression of this disdain on social media was widespread, leading to long comment-section catastrophes, resulting in more hostility and, for some, the hollow joy of internet supremacy.
Challenging and changing this dynamic was the goal of faculty and students of both Cairn University and the University of Pennsylvania at the two-part event, Politics in the Age of Trump: Speaking Across Our Differences, held first at Cairn, then at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, on February 7 and 21 respectively. The event was initiated by Paul Neal, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Enrollment, who partnered with UPenn to set up the event. As Neal and Provost Brian Toews led the students in discussion and other Cairn faculty and staff attended the event, Cairn’s administration and leadership were committed to creating a space for students of both schools to come together and openly discuss the political landscape in the wake of the presidential election,
The value of the event came from the diverse political views represented among attendees. Seated at the same table were conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, engaging in thoughtful dialogue and seeking to understand one another beyond the labels of partisanship.
On both dates, attendees first listened as a panel of six students from both universities answered questions from moderators Dr. Harris Sokoloff and Chris Satullo, such as “What is one question you would ask to someone who voted for the other candidate?” After a model discussion of civil discourse, the question was then turned to over the individual roundtables for continued discussion. As students dove into issues surrounding the election and the new president’s administration, groups openly discussed who they voted for and the factors influencing that choice.
Overall, students responded very well to the event, praising the civility and maturity of the dialogue, both on the panel and within the tables. “I think it functioned very well,” said Sawyer Whitted, a sophomore at Cairn. “I found the dialogue very engaging. I think it was really cool that we had an even split between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. There was lots of honesty and transparency… some very direct questions.”
“We touched on a lot of deeper issues without getting in each other’s faces, which I think is very constructive,” said Zhenya Nalywayko, a City and Regional Planning graduate student at Penn.
In fact, many students left the event satisfied with the discussion yet hungry for more. The two-hour event fostered connections among attendees, allowing for deeper and more open discussion as the night progressed. Jose Carreras, an Arts and Sciences student at Penn, expressed: “I wish it would have actually gone on for a little bit longer when the conversation was getting very interesting and we were opening up a bit more.” Still, he admits, “Even if it would have been three hours, I would probably still feel the same way.”
Although the duration of these events was limited, students and faculty of both universities expressed a clear desire for further conversation on their individual campuses and across the United States. Rooted in the goal of seeking first to understand rather than to convince, learning to dialogue properly is a valuable skill for students, especially as Americans—for this freedom of ideology is at the root of our identities as Americans. Instead of demanding unity of thought among the American people, the continued strength of our nation can be found in our ability and willingness to thoughtfully engage with opposing views to reach a compromise and move forward.
Special thanks to Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history of education at Penn, for helping plan the event. Dr. Zimmerman is widely published in the areas of campus politics and dialogue.
Author Andrew Hageman ’20 is a sophomore English major at Cairn. This article was originally written as an assignment for ENG421 – Freelance Writing.