By Kim Catley / Illustrations by Anna Godeassi

In today’s polarized world, arguments abound. From heated threads on social media, to a cacophony of talking heads on TV, to politicians who seemingly refuse to consider the other side, it can seem like everyone is more concerned with digging in their heels than digging into the underlying issues.

As a country, we’re having a hard time talking with each other—but at Macalester, faculty members are hoping they can equip their students to find another way.

The process doesn’t begin with tools and tricks for making a case, but rather an environment of trust—one where students learn to listen passionately and feel confident taking risks. From there, they develop a deep knowledge of their position and explore counterarguments, considering their positions from all angles and looking for fallibilities.

In genuine argumentation—a term defined by philosopher Henry Johnstone Jr.—no one is required to walk away with a changed mind, but both sides must be open to the possibility. We can’t demand that our opponents assume all the risks of being open to change, he argues, if we don’t ask the same of ourselves.

“Genuine argument is a deeply human and humane activity,” says political science professor Adrienne Christiansen. “It’s about figuring out what’s in the best interest of the community, and developing relationships with other people.”

Macalester seeks to create such a community. Whether it’s a class exploring the roots of political ideologies, a discussion about cultural norms with classmates from Sweden and Pakistan, or seeing the real-life implications of U.S. policy while working in the community, students are challenging their existing beliefs in an effort to more deeply understand their values, and their vision for the future.

Get to know your “opponent”

In the opening days of her first-year course “Political Argumentation and Debate,” Christiansen lays the groundwork for healthy, robust deliberation. Students read about principles of arguing on the website of the Better Arguments Project, a national initiative created to bridge divides, and Henry Johnstone Jr.’s 1963 essay, “Some Reflections on Argumentation,” in which he explains his idea of genuine argumentation and the importance of being truly open to another’s perspective.

She also turns to a deck of cards designed to foster conversation at a dinner party. After breaking students into pairs, she gives them a few questions to answer: What is one of your biggest regrets? What is one thing you would change about yourself?

As the week progresses, the groups get larger and the prompts more complex and controversial. For example, can online teaching offer a more equitable model of education?

“Over the course of five days, these students— who start as total strangers—experience sharing something about themselves that would normally not come up in a classroom,” Christiansen says. “The key is to create conditions where the students feel like they get to know each other and have an opportunity to be vulnerable.”

She wants her students to establish trust and create a classroom environment where kindness reigns, where there’s space to take risks and make mistakes without fear of being ridiculed. This, she says, is the setting for engaging in genuine argument.

“We argue,” she says, “but we want to do it in a better way, where human relationships are held up as central in overcoming our polarization.”

Explore the backstory

Many students come to Macalester because the college resonates with their progressive beliefs, whether it’s the school’s tradition of social protest or an emphasis on diversity that goes back decades. Still, these students are forming their opinions, and constantly reshaping them in light of new perspectives and life experiences. They’re also learning how to articulate what they believe and why.

On the first day of his “Conservative and Liberal Political Thought” course, political science professor Andrew Latham tells his students to throw away all of their preconceived notions. They spend half of the semester tracing the progression of liberalism from the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, known as the “father of liberalism,” through the New Deal and the 1960s, up to current thought. Then, he repeats the process with conservatism, starting with eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke.

“The way I try to set the table is, ‘We are going to learn two new languages,’” Latham says. “And when you learn a language, you learn the vocabulary, the grammar, you read a little bit of literature. You immerse yourself, you practice.

“The mainstream political discourse in this country is still from slightly center right to slightly center left. Being able to speak that language and enter that conversation is important for everybody, whether they’re a biology major, or an econ major, or a classics major.”

Once they have the vocabulary, Latham asks his students to write two papers, one at the end of each unit. First they explain why they are or are not liberal; then they answer the same question for conservatism. Some students still identify with the ideas they held at the beginning but have a clearer sense of why. Other students might write an essay explaining why they don’t identify with the classical definition of liberalism because they’re even further left. Wherever they land, Latham hopes they’re better equipped to handle intellectual challenges and can explain what they believe and why.

Ryan Specht ’21 (Somerville, Ohio) says his conservative beliefs are rooted in his upbringing. He knew his parents voted Republican, even though they didn’t discuss it often. Specht also has a reverence for history and tradition that he says was a major influence. Until recently, though, his beliefs were gut instinct; he didn’t have the language to explain them.

At Macalester, he says he slowly realized he didn’t agree with his peers on most issues. He avoided debates, because he didn’t have the reasoning to dispute their ideas, but also knew they didn’t feel right to him.

“That led me to do my own research,” he says. “Like most young conservatives I flirted with pure libertarianism for a time, but I slowly began to see the drawbacks of that and eventually developed some language regarding my own conservatism. I grew confident enough to start pushing back against what my peers were saying about politics.”

Enrolling in Latham’s class helped him take his research a step further by going beyond present-day politics to understand the underlying philosophy. “It allowed me to understand more than just what I think about a particular policy,” he says, “but why I value the moral and cultural traditions of this country, why it is that I believe the things I do.”

That grounded knowledge of conservatism is what Latham hopes all of his students—both conservative and liberal—take away from the class. In fact, the course is a deliberate effort to expose Macalester students to conservative thought, filling what he saw as a gap in the college’s course offerings. He originally developed it as “Conservative Political Thought,” but reengineered the course to contextualize how conservatism is, in part, a reaction to liberalism.

While Latham saw an academic gap, his course isn’t the only space where Macalester students can debate conservative ideas. On a campus that trends to the left, the Mac GOP student organization provides a gathering place where conservative students can debate and dissect their arguments without starting from a defensive position. Kian Sohrabi ’22 (Potomac, Md.), the organization’s chair, says when members don’t have to explain or defend core principles, they can have a more nuanced discussion about conservative policies.

Just as the national Republican Party is currently reckoning with members’ competing visions for the future, students in Mac GOP represent a spectrum of viewpoints. In fact, Sohrabi says they welcome members of different political perspectives; conservative, libertarian, and even liberal students are invited to join in the conversation.

“Having people who think differently can lead to a better discussion,” he says. “We’re all actively disagreeing with each other, but at the same time, respecting each other and developing our ideas. I don’t have to completely agree with the person I talked with, but at least I understand their argument better, and hopefully I’ve developed my own.”

Seek out more information

For more than 10 years, sociology professor and chair Erik Larson has taught “Social Science Inquiry,” a research methods course that asks students to collect data in response to a client’s question. The clients are typically campus offices and departments or community organizations. They’re seeking students’ perspectives on topics ranging from the college’s first-year courses, to the role of finances in their lives, to their understanding of leadership. The data is then used to inform policies and programs.

In small groups, students complete each stage of the research process: designing surveys, implementing them, collecting and analyzing the data, and drafting a report. They have to consider
the mindset of survey respondents and frame questions to solicit responses that accurately reflect what other people believe and how they act.

This semester, one group is exploring how students understand polarization, and whether it has any influence on their day-to-day lives. It’s a question posed by the Civic Engagement Center, in partnership with Move for America, which is launching a summer fellowship program for college students and recent graduates that aims to bridge the urban-rural divide in Minnesota.

An early draft of the students’ survey included questions about how people think about diversity of opinions, whether bipartisanship or compromise is good, and how well-prepared students feel to speak with people with different viewpoints.

“[The survey] will unpack this idea of polarization,” Larson says. “In the course, we encourage each other to get beyond the obvious, to get to the questions that can help us understand the deeper cultural meanings and connections across these phenomena that we only often talk about in the singular and the abstract.”

Consider every angle

While having the knowledge to back up your case is a key element of debate, genuine argument also requires an openness to seeing the world through another’s eyes.

At Macalester, students are exposed to a spectrum of thought—particularly due to the college’s emphasis on internationalism and multiculturalism. It’s one thing for American students who identify as conservative or liberal to have a discussion about immigration in the United States. It’s another to have that same conversation with international students from Turkey, China, the West Bank, Colombia, and the Netherlands, not to mention students who immigrated to the United States.

Julius Enarsson Enestrom ’24 (West Chester, Pa.) regularly brought that global mindset to Christiansen’s first-year argumentation class. Enestrom’s parents are Swedish diplomats. He was born in Sweden and has lived in New York City; Stockholm; Islamabad, Pakistan; London; Brussels; and Philadelphia.

He often applied a Swedish lens to discussions and essays. In one instance, Enestrom had to write a paper about immigration. He saw how the right-wing, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats were surging in popularity—but for very different reasons than anti-immigrant sentiments in the United States. In Sweden, citizens are used to paying high taxes because they believe in providing a social safety net, but they also trust that others will work and support the system. Enestrom says that refugees, however, can struggle to gain employment, for example due to language barriers. This leads some Swedes to believe immigrants are destroying the welfare system.

Comparing the Swedish and American responses to immigration led Enestrom to see his country in a new light. “I hadn’t really taken that external perspective,” he says. “It made me question, what is Swedish culture?”

Zain Ijaz ’21 (Lahore, Pakistan) also found his experience at Macalester led him to a more nuanced understanding of how his beliefs were rooted in his experiences growing up in Pakistan. He says he had few chances for exposure to different ideas, or space to talk with others about what they believed.

At Macalester, getting constructive feedback from classmates and professors helped him refine his own ideas and make better arguments. In a mock debate for his “Latin America Through Women’s Eyes” class, Ijaz had to play the role of a South American president who opposed abortion rights. He had to research and present beliefs that didn’t align with his own, but in doing so, he came to understand the arguments behind them.

“It helped me understand both sides of the coin better, and the different perspectives that people have,” Ijaz says. “I learned that it’s okay that some people might agree with what you have to say, and others might not. At the end of the day, I’m still learning a lot from both sides, and it helps me make a more informed decision.”

While some students find a perspective shakeup through discussions with their classmates, others learn that leaving the classroom helps them broaden their understanding of how others see the world.

A former work-study student in the Civic Engagement Center, Margaret Breen ’20, says the classroom was a space for reading theory and discussing ideas, but it didn’t compare to being out in
the community. She recalls a political science class, “Politics and Inequality: The American Welfare State,” that included discussion about the failures of welfare.

At the same time, Breen was teaching English at the Rondo Library, where people often came for help signing up for SNAP, reduced-cost public transit, and other welfare programs. She spent part of her time analyzing policies and legislation, and arguing with classmates about whether welfare traps people in poverty—and then witnessed the urgency of solving those problems in real life.

Breen left convinced that theoretical policy conversations weren’t enough. To find solutions, she needed to hear the voices of those who are affected by the decisions.

“It was a really valuable lesson about the importance of engaging with community and listening,” Breen says. “As much as it might seem easier to have one person pointing and telling everyone what to do, I could see the shortcomings of that as well.”

Make your case

After the students in Adrienne Christiansen’s first-year argumentation course establish rapport and gain a fundamental understanding of the principles of debate, she puts them to the test.

Every week, she meets with small groups to discuss the readings and related subjects. A former debate coach, Christiansen applies some of the same tactics for testing arguments, which often involves strategically arguing your case and preparing for your opponent’s counterposition. But she also insists her students practice passionate and empathetic listening—without worrying about their next move. She keeps the focus on communication, reasoning, and evaluating the effectiveness of their arguments, rather than encouraging classmates to change one another’s minds.

She sees the whole process as serious work, with high-stakes implications.

“The polarization in the U.S. and around the world ought to give us pause,” she says. “It’s very easy to move from polarization to hostility and animosity, and the desire to stamp out the ideas and people who don’t share your view.

“This isn’t a frothy [exercise], to read about other people’s ideas. It is absolutely essential if Americans want to maintain a model of democracy. We have to be in a position to argue for it and be attentive to its weaknesses and inadequacies.”

In one session, she challenged her students to tackle that very question. After reading the 2018 book How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Christiansen asked her students to write an argument about whether or not modern-day American democracy is worth maintaining.

One of her students, Janette Lopez Ramos ’24 (Las Vegas), drew on her own background in speech and debate when formulating her opinion. She knew firsthand the importance of voicing her opinion, how to communicate with people who hold different opinions, how to be empathetic, and how to think critically about the world around her.

“I argued in that paper that democracy is worth it, because democracy allows people to freely share their ideas, while also living in a community that’s respectful of others,” Ramos says. “Democracy gives power to the people and allows them to decide for themselves.”

Be open to having your mind changed

If the goal of all of this work isn’t to change someone else’s mind, or even shift your own, you might be wondering: What’s the point?

Latham says it’s part of his responsibility to help Macalester students prepare to navigate the outside world. While he describes Macalester as his dream job, he also says the college’s values are, unfortunately, not representative of the cities and companies where graduates might land. “Look at our mission statement: the public service, the civic engagement, the global citizenship,” he says. “If we take them seriously, we have to equip students not for the world they wish they were moving into, but the world they’re actually moving into.”

By recognizing both the value and limitations of Macalester’s progressive bubble, and constantly challenging their ideas of the world, students will be able to talk to people of all backgrounds and beliefs.

During Margaret Breen’s senior year, she worked with the Civic Engagement Center and ISAIAH, a multi-racial, multi-faith organization focused on racial and economic equity in Minnesota. ISAIAH was launching a new relational organizing program, and Breen was tasked with talking to people in her network about the importance of voting in the November 2019 election.

The problem was, the only item on the ballot that year was a city referendum on trash collection. Breen has always been deeply engaged with local politics; her friends, however, were a harder sell. Breen says she learned how to share her values without lecturing those who feel otherwise.

She had the chance to test that approach after graduation when she phonebanked for the Sierra Club ahead of the 2020 election. She was supporting climate justice candidates, all of whom were Democrats, and occasionally had the chance to engage further with people who planned to vote Republican down the ballot.

“It wasn’t about convincing anybody,” Breen says, “but it was about them giving me something to chew on, and hopefully me giving something for them to chew on. [I want] to try and promote critical thinking, because I think that was probably my biggest takeaway from Macalester. We need to be comfortable not just saying what we believe, but also why.”

Even if Macalester graduates never draw a direct correlation between these skills and their career, they’re still sharpening skills of curiosity and argumentation. They’ll be equipped to make their case and listen carefully to the perspectives of others, whether they’re running for office, volunteering with a civic organization, or simply talking to their neighbors.

Kian Sohrabi says that’s what he hopes to take away from the push-pull of his experience on campus and in Mac GOP.

“I might end up 50 steps to the left in the next five years, or I might end up 50 steps to the right,” he says. “But it helps me know that no matter which way I end up falling, it’s not because I’m being pulled by one force, or pushed by another. It happened because of constant discussion and critical thinking from both sides.”

Kim Catley is a writer in Richmond, Virginia.

April 23 2021

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