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Covering political topics in the classroom

Universities+have+a+responsibility+to+prepare+students+for+the+real+world%2C+and+the+real+world+includes+political+discourse.+Photo+courtesy+of+Orlando+Sentinel
Universities have a responsibility to prepare students for the real world, and the real world includes political discourse. Photo courtesy of Orlando Sentinel

Universities have a responsibility to prepare students for the real world, and the real world includes political discourse. Photo courtesy of Orlando Sentinel

Universities have a responsibility to prepare students for the real world, and the real world includes political discourse. Photo courtesy of Orlando Sentinel

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U.S. citizens in the 21st century seem to navigate political polarization by diving headfirst into heated debates online or refusing to participate in political discussion altogether. It’s a no-win scenario.

We find ourselves unfollowing friends and family on social media and ignoring the elephant in the room on holidays.

We’re all stressed, we’re all frustrated and we’re all worried about the future of our country. Yet, we can’t seem to hash out our differences and come together to move forward.

In a study conducted by Pew Research, 14 percent of Republicans said they have a lot of friends in the opposing party. Nine percent of Democrats said the same thing.

How do we overcome the false narrative that claims a deep, irreparable divide exists in the United States when we avoid or belittle people who disagree with us?

We need to know how to distinguish facts from opinions. We need to be able to ask questions, acknowledge biases in ourselves and others, examine information/ evidence and draw conclusions. We need to accept when we’re wrong and make changes where necessary.

Which raises the question, are universities doing enough to ensure students leave higher education with these critical thinking skills?

Senior instructor in the University of South Alabama’s department of communication, Genevieve Dardeau, engaged students in controversial issues and current events such as gun control and immigration during a public speaking lecture on persuasion this month.

Dardeau said she allows politics in the classroom because she wants to set the example for students.

Many students are nervous when they enter public speaking. They question whether they can explore topics related to religion, sex and politics. So what makes Dardeau’s approach different?

“If you’re not exposed to it then how do you develop the discourse?” Dardeau said. “How do you set up an argument that is based on facts? What is a fact? How do you evaluate that? How do you defend it?”

According to Dardeau, professors should strive to truly educate, not indoctrinate students.

“I would much rather them do it in a college environment than wait until they get into their jobs,” Dardeau said.

USA student Kristina Evans thanked Dardeau after the lecture. Evans admires Dardeau for taking charge of the classroom and encouraging students to participate in difficult conversations.

“When she mentioned gun control she told us she was a gun owner,” Evans said. “Well, sure she’s a gun owner, and she may be a recreational hunter, but that doesn’t mean she’s for or against guns. She’s just saying she’s used guns, and she uses them now. It wasn’t like ‘this is what I believe so you should too.’ She allowed you to have your own dimension in the conversation.”

Evans is supportive of discussing politics in the classroom. However, she feels it should be done mildly and in a healthy manner.

USA student Jason KirstenMatrone agreed and believed that as a country, we are too afraid to talk about controversial issues. That needs to change.

“I think it’s especially appropriate in public speaking because all opinions are out on the floor,” Matrone said. “So to have someone who is modeling that helps build a student’s confidence to stand up in front of everybody and speak. She (Dardeau) didn’t hold back anything which is why it was so good.”

Universities have a responsibility to prepare students for the real world, and the real world includes political discourse. If professors continue to shy away from controversial subjects, students will never learn how to navigate them. Are these the kind of leaders we want to send into our communities?

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Covering political topics in the classroom