ALMA — A new course at Alma College aims to help young people with differing views come together and talk about political issues in constructive ways, leading to positive outcomes that can help move our communities forward.
The course, “Common Sense Solutions,” aims to combine the studies of political science and philosophy in a way that challenges partisan divisions while finding solutions to big problems.
“The ideal student for this is someone who is concerned with the state of American democracy and believes that we need to do better at passing laws that address real issues. They will learn the skills needed to get past their own political biases and work to explain their positions across social boundaries,” said Benjamin Peterson, one of the instructors of the course, and co-director of the Center for College and Community Engagement. Quinn Harr, a lecturer of philosophy, will be instructing the course as well.
“I think it’s something that will have a lot of interest among students, particularly at a place like Alma, where we’re used to working across academic disciplines to find solutions to problems. Our students want to make meaningful change in their communities and they need these skills to do that.”
Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to talk about politics with people who disagree with their views. According to a 2021 Pew Research poll, 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they find these conversations to be stressful, up 11 percentage points since 2019.
Similarly, six-in-10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they find such conversations frustrating, up from 53 percent in 2019.
Young people may be uniquely affected by these trends. According to a 2022 Generation Lab poll, nearly half of rising college sophomores say they likely wouldn’t choose to live with someone who supported the opposing candidate in the 2020 presidential election. More than half said they likely would not go on a date with someone who supported the other side.
“I’ve often referred to the ideal college experience as a ‘marketplace of ideas’ — a place where students can try on new things, hash out their differences and fail forward in a way that ultimately prepares them to become good citizens,” said Alma College President Jeff Abernathy.
“Seeing this polling data, which is part of a trend that has been ongoing throughout much of my 14-year tenure as college president, is evidence that our students need more training and opportunities to practice this skill. It’s incumbent upon us to talk, listen and work together across our political divides.”
As part of the class, students work together on a final project geared around a number of different, big-picture policy proposals, such as gun control, immigration and the national debt. Those final projects will be judged by a group of nonpartisan officials, who will choose the most practical response to the issue and award a prize to the group. Students will also take field trips and hear from guest speakers who represent various groups and interests.
Gary Fenchuk, an Alma College alumnus from the Class of 1968, is supporting the class and has signed on as a guest speaker. He is a self-described “radical moderate” who co-founded the nonprofit think tank Thomas Paine Society, named after the U.S. Founding Father and “Common Sense” author.
“My generation is a part of a group that has taken a lot from America, which you can see for instance in situations like our ballooning national debt,” Fenchuk said. “It’s up to this generation of students to help right the wrongs of the past. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of that discussion.”