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Quadcast transcript: What’s the problem with civility?

February 7, 2019

Jim Ver Steeg:            That, of course, was the sound of President Donald Trump speaking to congressional leaders in early December—vowing to shut down the government if he didn’t get funding for a border wall between the US and Mexico. It is perhaps one of the recognizable and recent examples of what seems like an entrenched unwillingness to reach across the aisle and compromise.


But it’s not the only one—and neither the left nor the right can claim that they are immune to the game of political brinksmanship.


Is it just politics, or is there a broader issue to consider? When students from Covington Kentucky—many of whom were wearing Make America Great Again hats—were recorded in what looked to many like a standoff confrontation with a Native American elder, the video went viral. When new video of the moments leading up to the incident emerged, many argued the additional footage offered context that complicated the original story, and both social and mainstream media were rebuked for what seemed to be a rush to judgement.


If you look at social media, or just simply read, watch, or listen to the news, it’s easy to get the sense that America is more polarized than ever. But are traditional and social media outlets the only platforms for civic—and hopefully civil—discourse?


Those are just some of the questions we’ll try to answer in this episode of the Quadcast.


Joining me today are three very distinguished members of the University of Rochester faculty.


Joan Saab, who is Vice Provost of Academic Affairs and the Susan B. Anthony Professor of Art History & Visual and Cultural Studies University of Rochester. When not in her Administrative role, Joan teaches and writes about public art and civil discourse.


David Primo, who is the Ani and Mark Gabrellian Professor Associate Professor of Political Science and Business Administration whose current research focuses on budget rules, corporate responsibility, political spending, and finance laws. Dave, thank you for joining us.


And Kevin Meuwissen who is associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. Kevin’s most recent research explores secondary students’ political thinking and socialization.


Dave, I want to start with you, particularly because we opened with that sound of President Trump in his office talking about the border wall. I guess my question for you as a political scientist and expert in this area is how did we get here? Is this heated rhetoric something we can move beyond and reach compromise? Is this something new to America? Is it unprecedented or is it something we have understood in the past?


David Primo:              Well, there’s a lot in that question so let me try to unpack it a little bit. The first question I heard was really about the country’s political preferences: the way we are divided or not divided and whether or not we’ve seen that before. And we have seen that before. In fact, a famous Civil War historian just said a little while back in an interview if we really understood what was happening in previous eras, we wouldn’t be so concerned with what’s going on right now We’ve been down this road before. And this is a Civil War historian. I want to be careful, though, that we don’t say, “Hey, at least we’re not having a Civil War” and pack up our bags, go home, and think everything’s fine. We have some work to do in this country.


But I want to push back a little bit on this idea that polarization is necessarily problematic. It’s when polarization becomes destabilizing that it’s problematic. I also think we need to be careful about thinking that compromise is always better than not compromising. You can have a compromise that leads to pretty bad public policies. So, compromise can itself sometimes be overrated.


So, I think when we think about the question of political polarization it really comes down to why we care about it. Is it that we care about the policy outcomes we’re getting or not getting? Is it because we fear that the country isn’t functioning? Or are we concerned about the discourse, how we go about being citizens? And I think it’s that latter piece that we have the best hope to try to manage. I think we’re fundamentally divided as a country because we have different political preferences, and that’s okay. The key is when it becomes is, again, destabilizing or we’re unable to have conversations. And Arthur Brooks, who’s the outgoing president of the American Enterprise Institute is coming out with a book later this year called Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. And I think that phrase, “the culture of contempt,” very nicely encapsulates what we see a lot of today and how we got here, another part of your question. Part of what we’ve seen in terms of the research in political science and sociology and elsewhere in the last 20 years is that this is not so much – or, it is somewhat about us becoming more divided in terms of our preferences, but it’s also, more importantly, about sorting.


So, if you were to poll every member of the University of Rochester faculty, how many of them would say that they have a close friend who’s a supporter of Donald Trump? I would wager to say that number is – or that percentage would be fairly low. And on the flipside, if you were to go into certain towns in the southern tier and say, “How many friends do you have who are ultraliberal Hillary Clinton supporters?” I’m not sure how many you would find there. So, we’ve done a really good job of setting ourselves up so we never have to be around people who disagree with us.


And that extends to who we marry. There are now studies showing that people would be hesitant to marry somebody of the opposite political party. And that’s the sense in which we’ve become more polarized, and we’ve become more sorted, that we don’t actually interact with people who are different. And I hope later on we’ll have a chance to talk about how that plays out in universities as well.


Jim Ver Steeg:            That that notion of sorting also happens on social media. It’s not in just geographical spaces but in those digital spaces as well. People who tend to have one political belief have friends who often share those beliefs, so you sort of see and hear opinions and ideas that are similar to your own and they sort of buttress your own opinions without a lot of feedback or contrary opinions from other places. Is that – do we see as something that’s contributing to the challenges in discourse or contributing to polarization? Or is it something that just is a nonevent?


David Primo:              We are really at the beginning stages or understanding the effects of social media, both on our own personal lives and on our political lives, if you will. So, the best social science research that’s out there seems to suggest that social media actually increases our political knowledge, or at the very least doesn’t harm it as much as the media hype about fake news would suggest, that there actually is an informative component of social media. And so, the question is can we carve out that informative slice and crowd out the other stuff, if you will?


Whether or not it increases polarization – it might increase political knowledge, but it also might make you more polarized. There again, we don’t have a lot of evidence that it makes people more polarized. However, it certainly is the case that it may help reinforce your existing political beliefs if you only see the views of individuals with whom you agree. And so, the social media can exacerbate any existing divisions, it would seem to me, but it doesn’t create them.


And I think it’s very easy to blame social media, but Facebook’s not that old a company and we seemed to not get along very much 25 years ago as well. But hindsight is – we view the past with rose-colored glasses, and that’s not necessarily the way it was.


Jim Ver Steeg:            Joan, I’d like to turn to you, particularly in your role as Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. And I think – one of the things that I’m curious about is how you see challenges in having that kind of civil discourse play out and what might we be able to do as a university or what might higher education be able to do to help students become better at it?


Joan Saab:                  I’d like to think that that’s exactly the reason we have higher education or we have liberal arts education, because it’s a forum – or at least in the classes that I teach in the humanities and my colleagues in the social sciences as well teach, we try to create spaces for the exchange of ideas and often sort of lively debate. Because I think that, as David said, you don’t want everybody – I mean, nothing is worse than a class where everybody agrees, because if you’re trying to have a conversation it’s a no-go if everybody says, “Oh, yeah, that’s what I think too.” So, sometimes I find myself playing devil’s advocate just to get people to try to engage with what they see as the other side of an argument. And in the arts and humanities that can be an easy place to model that because students and members of the community don’t always realize that the things that they encounter on a daily basis in terms of public art or murals or sculptures or even institutions are often – have come about as the result of highly contested debates.


And at the university level we do this in the Humanities Center. This year’s topic, they’ve – every year the Humanities Center has a topic that sort of guides their programming and this year’s is “expertise.” And I think that that’s for this particular moment a crucial topic to explore because there is this idea that “Oh, everybody has an opinion and every opinion is valid,” but that’s not always true. Sometimes people are right and other people are wrong. But how to come together in an engaged and informed and respectful conversation where experts can say, “No, that’s not exactly what happened” or “Perhaps that’s one way of looking at it, but why don’t we try to look at it from this other avenue”? We do that – as I said, we do that in the programs through the Humanities Center. The Warner School has a number of programs, public outreach in the community through schools, and the Eastman School as well and their community music school. And the Memorial Art Gallery, which is a part of the university as well, does a lot around public debate and public discourse.


And you’ll see people as – I’m often over at MAG and there’s a media arts program now with video art, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood outside of the media arts area and heard somebody say, “What the heck is that?” And the next moment is the crucial moment because they have to engage with it and they have to understand “What – why is this in a museum?” Or “What is this allowing people to do or engage with?”


And it’s those moments that I think the university needs to really step up and explain, or at least provide a forum for people to think about what’s at stake at so many of the things that we’re looking at.


Jim Ver Steeg:            So, what do artists have to offer as far as helping us understand or at least have discourse around some of these more social topics that maybe you don’t get as a pundit?


Joan Saab:                  Well, I think that artists have an opportunity to provide objects that people can engage with and to question. And, I mean, this goes all the way back to the earliest days of “What is a democratic art form? Is there such a thing?” And the debates over Central Park. Central Park was conceived as an art form and there were all sorts of contests over who would have access to the park, and when the park would be open, and the statuary that went into the park. And these sorts of debates sort of fueled early – I mean, lot of it was tied to patronage and party politics. And these are things that people don’t know or think about. And you think about the 1960s as well and the debates over the NEA, and in the ’80s the NEA Four and Jesse Helms on the – taking a museum catalog from the Brooklyn Museum and shredding it on the floor of the Senate. I mean, these were – this was about art. And this – people don’t often think about it.


So, I think it’s another venue for the engagement and debate. A lot of times, people say, “Well, that’s not art.” And that’s not helpful. It may not be in your eyes or you might say, “Oh, my four-year-old could do that” – you hear that all the time but – around things like abstract expressionism and different types of non-representative art – but that’s not helpful. It’s that moment of engagement and listening to somebody say, “Well, it might be art because of this.” And so, it’s the listening component of it and the processing of it. You might still not like it, but it’s not always about liking. It’s about understanding and tolerating, and then taking those lessons and applying them to other things as well.


Jim Ver Steeg:            So, a lot of it is about that healthy provocative nature of art and what it can inspire.


Joan Saab:                  Yeah. It pushes buttons. And it makes people – sometimes art makes people uneasy. And people – I mean, there are different ways to think about how art circulates in the public. Sometimes it’s an object of value. Sometimes it’s an object of contemplation. Sometimes it’s decoration. So – sometimes it’s all of those things. Sometimes it’s none of those things. And I think that that’s the opportunity that we have to engage.


Jim Ver Steeg:            Kevin, I’d like to turn to you. I think the conversations around how to inspire civil civic discourse, particularly in young people, is especially important for us in higher education. And I mentioned this at the opening, that the incident where we saw the students from the Covington Catholic High School in what seemed to be a standoff confrontation with Nathan Phillips, who was a Native American elder.


So, what did we see there? In your – through your lens of your research what did we see there? And how can we better understand where those young people are in their own development and what was happening in that scene?


Kevin Meuwissen:      So, my interpretation of the students in the Covington Catholic High video wasn’t that they have really strong political beliefs but that they’re probably relying on some pretty strong political shortcuts that make it unnecessary for them to think very hard about their positions on political issues. And so, I think one of the things that we can do to help young people engage better in politics is to help them understand how our political shortcuts work.


On a meta level lots of folks also used similar kinds of shortcuts to make sense of the video afterwards. So, within a few days after the video the discourse had turned to whether the so-called MAGA youth were either (a) standing together for free expression after being heckled themselves of (b) drawing from their sort of racist, classist context of their upbringings to harass an indigenous person who was trying to calm things down. And so, I think understanding how the sort of social and psychological mechanisms work in those kinds of circumstances might help kids understand the process of doing politics better.


So, I used the term “political shortcuts,” and what I mean by that is that there are sort of social and cognitive tools and processes that stand in as proxies for sort of deeper consideration and understanding of public problems. And some of these shortcuts are relatively easy to see or identify. So, for example, political party is a shortcut. The political elites we choose to trust – that’s a political shortcut. Affiliated cultural groups.


Although, some would say if you looked around that crowd of kids and you saw all of the Make America Great hats on those kids, that’s a couple of different political shortcuts working at the same time. First, you’ve got the symbol, the symbolic ideology that’s represented in the hat. And then, you have a group of people who are all sort of yelling and chanting an doing things together, and that sort of groupishness is a kind of political shortcut as well.


And so, I think we can better understand the development of young people’s social and political affiliations by actually engaging with them in circumstances in which that development happens, and not just looking at the political interactions that they’re having around issues on the ground, but also examining and talking with them about why people take the kinds of political positions that they do. So, kind of efforts to do both things, to link their on-the-ground political discourse with kind of a 10,000-foot view of how people on the ground do politics with each other and why they do it that way so that we can help students become sort of more meta-cognitive about the process of doing politics.


Jim Ver Steeg:            Dave, I want to turn back to you. When I was listening to Kevin talk about those shortcuts I’m wondering if those shortcuts contribute to that notion of sorting. Do you see that as a way in which people are sorted through these political shortcuts?


David Primo:              Absolutely, in that if you – again, if you go back 25 years ago, the differences between the parties was not as great as they are today. So, there’s actually a huge debate in the literature about whether Americans are polarized or just sorted, but most everybody agrees that elites are extremely polarized. And in fact, in research I’m doing on campaign finance, campaign finance experts are far more polarized on the left/right dimension than the American public on issues of money and politics. And so, you definitely see that elites are polarized, but that does make those cues even more powerful, that if I’m a Democrat or I’m a Republican, you know a lot about what my party thinks. So, if I’m using that as a cue, I know a lot just by knowing that this person is a Democratic representative or a Republican representative, more than I would have known 30 or 40 years ago. And you can look at these really cool figures online that show that the sorting of the elites – and it’s much more – or the polarization of the elites over time in terms of looking at Congress, that’s gotten much more extreme.


And we’ve actually seen it in the professoriate. We’ve actually seen that professors have become much more polarized in the last 40 years. And one of the things I would like to see universities do, including this one, is pay more attention to the question of viewpoint diversity. We pay a lot – we talk a lot about diversity. But I’ve heard not one peep on this campus and on most campus about the importance of having a diversified faculty on political dimensions. It’s just not something we pay attention to. But it seems really relevant in a time when several students over the years tell me they’re afraid to speak their mind in class sometimes because of fear of reprisal. And that’s an issue.


Joan Saab:                  I want to respond to what Dave just said but I also wanted to go back a little bit earlier in the conversation and respond to what both David and Kevin said about polarization and sorting and, again, advocate for the importance of history because the earliest newspapers were along political party lines. And churches and clubs in the early days of the republic and on have allowed for this type of sorting as well.


I think what’s happening in – what’s different now is the proliferation and access to the other side’s ideas through social media so that you get retweets and tweets that you can see the original tweet embedded in somebody else’s tweet. So, it gives you in some ways a snapshot of the whole world out there. So, I’m not saying that they’re equivalent to what happened historically but that we need to – and this is exactly what the university can do, and I find that some of the most successful classes I teach are when I take things that are similar to what’s happening today but different and historicize them, the students then get a sense of “Oh, right. This is not a new phenomenon.” And I think that there’s such a presentism in some of our approaches to the contemporary moment that we think – it is unique, don’t get me wrong, but I think that there are historical examples that we can look to.


And I think that, again, that’s a way to address some of the diversity of opinion that Dave was just talking about. Because I do agree, it is a problem. And I just had a class on public art and I was like “Oh, we’re going to have this debate over what to have with Confederate monuments.” And as I said, that debate went nowhere because everybody in the class was on the same page. So, I found myself trying to play devil’s advocate and say, “Well, they’re historical …” it was – I mean, and the students of course didn’t by that I was up there trying to advocate for this, which I really couldn’t in good faith do. But it was difficult to have that conversation because everybody was on the same political page. And they came from a diverse set of backgrounds and nationalities and – but in that particular instance it was a – it just sort of fell – and then we talked about that.


Jim Ver Steeg:            So, Kevin, maybe you can speak a little bit to some of the notions to access to information for these students. For me it seemed – when I was watching those videos it seemed like I was watching kids not so terribly different from the kids I – some of the kids I knew growing up who had very solid opinions but little to counterbalance how they arrived at those opinions. And sometimes it was just because they didn’t have access to different viewpoints. Is that an element that you saw in those videos?


Kevin Meuwissen:      Possibly. I mean, access is important because access is what allows you to engage in sort of a deep investigation of whatever the sort of political problem is that’s in front of you. So, in order to look at the circumstances of those interactions, going back to what Joan just mentioned, you have to look at the historical context of those circumstances, the people involved in them, and other circumstances in the past in which interactions like those have taken place as a means of developing sort of a broader understanding of what’s actually going on there.


But I also think that it’s important to look at discourse patterns, like how do people actually engage in discourse together? And what are the kinds of circumstances that lead them to engage in one kind of way versus another kind of way? So, in the context of the research that I’m currently doing, I have the privilege of going into classrooms and working with teachers to teach kids about political discourse. The sort of fundamental question we’re working on is: Are open-minded citizens mythological creatures or mythological figures. Right? And so, one of the things that we’re doing is we’re engaging in these kinds of conversations about contested political issues, but also in ways that are sort of historicized and dealt with around contemporary problems. And one of the things that we have found – my research team and I have found—that there are different types of discourse patterns, and those different kinds of discourse patterns are built in many ways by who’s involved in the discourse and who takes kind of leadership positions in engaging in those discourses.


So, I think the sort of educational upshot of this is that educators both at K-12 levels and potentially at collegiate levels might consider doing a couple of things. Number one, emphasizing and reinforcing the normative benefits or participating in political discourse from a position of inquiry rather than a position of defense. “We need to explicitly say these things and this is a norm that we are going to be engaging in as people trying to figure this stuff out.” And then, number two, finding and building political discourse around problems and questions that may less likely be ideologically polarizing and more likely focus on sort of operational politics like “What should we do? How should we do it? And where do we go from here?”


Jim Ver Steeg:            When I watch the news, when I pay attention to things that are happening, my frustration is “Yeah, but how – we see a lot of disagreement but how are we ever going to get anything done?” And Dave, I’ll turn to you from just a political science perspective, is how do we get anything done?


David Primo:              I’m hesitating a little bit because, again, I think back to the – what I said at the beginning of the podcast, which is this idea that getting something done is better than not getting done, that something is better than nothing in politics. But unlike in a private market transaction where it’s voluntary, politics is by definition coercive. So, the Congress passes a law, the president signs it, and we all must abide by it. So, a change in the law implies coercion. And so, it’s not necessarily the case that getting something done is better.


And this is – and this actually goes to the point of we hear – whenever there’s a call for some sort of reform to the political system, as we’re seeing now with Democrats, with HR1 calling for wholesale voting reform, wholesale election reform, many of those provisions deal with basic rights of voting, but others deal with – and they’re very transparent with this – deal with attempts to say, “Passing this law will help us get policy X, policy Y, policy Z.” So, the reforms of democracy – when they say “better democracy” they really mean “policies we like better.” And the Republicans are not immune to this either, right? So, the structure of the rules is often with the goal of achieving particular policy ends. So, getting something done isn’t necessarily a positive. It really depends on how you look at the issue.


Now, to frame that question slightly differently, though, if you’re not able to undertake the basic functions of government, that is just outright dysfunction, and that is an issue. And that is – and so long as we give elected officials the power to shut down the government we’re going to continue having that problem. But we need to put this in perspective. The government shutdown got a lot of attention because it was red meat for – (a) it was red meat for the political parties but (b) it was red meat for the media. It gave them something to cover. Every day there was something new. They could find somebody who hadn’t received a paycheck, somebody who was struggling. There were victims to the shutdown. But the reality is that the long-term effects of the shutdown are pretty minimal.


So, again, getting things done, yes, we want to have a government that’s functional. But it’s not clear, again, that compromise is always the solution. Rather than thinking about policy outcomes we need to think “Can we do democracy better in the sense of having conversations that are more civil?” because that will make us just better human beings, frankly. And that’s one of the studies that – one of the studies that’s been done on social media and politics showed that after detoxing on social media it wasn’t that you became less politically polarized necessarily but we just felt better. So, I tuned out, just to be frank, most of the discussion of Covington. I mean, I just – my life’s too short. I’m just not going to pay attention. And I’m a political scientist. Because there’s just nothing – at some point – right? – the marginal utility, the marginal gains in knowledge to reading more about this or looking online more about this was pretty close to zero. That’s not to say we shouldn’t engage in difficult conversations, but we need to engage in difficult conversations that are productive. And that pretty quickly became a destructive conversation, online at least.


Jim Ver Steeg:            And it strikes me that when they say all politics is local, all politics are personal in a lot of ways, and people take these things so, so personally. And I think sometimes that contributes to how we shape our discourse and how we shape our conversation and how we shape our debate.


But I want to sort of explore – we’re talking necessarily about what higher education can do in these circumstances, but going back to that point about students or people who don’t benefit from or can’t benefit from an experience in higher education, how do we impart this notion of greater civil civic discourse to people who might not have immediate access to different viewpoints?


Joan Saab:                  I think that the university as an entity and the University of Rochester in particular need to – and we’re doing this – we need to engage with members of the community outside of the classroom. We need to – and this is going to sound really sort of Pollyanna-ish, but we need to be public intellectuals. And we need to not just limit what we’re doing to our professional lives but I think model it in our daily behavior as well.


So, I’m not saying when you’re at the checkout line at Wegmans to give a little lecture in response to the headlines in The National



Enquirer. But when you have the opportunity, whether it’s to go speak to a group of high school students, or I’ve done things at the Memorial Art Gallery for outreach – we’re working with students at East High in the Humanities Center on a summer institute around issues of democracy and it’s a sort of great books curriculum. So, to bring knowledge and to model the type of civil discourse that Kevin and David have been talking about outside of the classroom. I think to me that’s the benefit of being in a liberal arts education, is you engage other people’s ideas all the time in ideally a respectful way. But to model that type of exchange outside of the classroom and amongst peers and friends who are not academics, I think that’s the – in some ways the most important thing. To do it, as both of my colleagues have said here today, in not a defensive way but as a form of inquiry. “Why do you think that? Oh, that’s interesting” rather than “You’re wrong.” Because it’s very easy to sort of take the high, dismissive road, but that’s not going to get us anywhere and that’s going to just lead to levels of distrust and charges of elitism. So, I think it’s modeling that and engaging with people on a daily basis to question and also to elucidate other options and ways of thinking about things.


Kevin Meuwissen:      So, I really appreciate those comments and I think one of the things that is really important to me that I heard was the importance of trust, political trust. And engaging regularly seems to be something that’s important to do. Engaging regularly, consistently, and longitudinally with people seems to be something that’s important to do to sort of build political trust. So, going back to the example of lecturing somebody at the line at Wegman’s – right? – I mean, this is a rando next to you with some dairy and you don’t know them, they don’t know you, so there’s no trust there. It’s just kind of not a trustworthy situation for both people.


So, I think one of the questions that I have is how do you build the political trust that’s necessary in order to engage in politics and, to use Dave’s language, in more productive ways rather than destructive ways. Going back to the idea of having people regularly involved in these sort of cross-cutting social and political circumstances and taking – investing in others in those contexts is one way. But I’m genuinely curious about the way political trust is built. And I’m also curious about this question about productive politics or constructive politics versus destructive politics and how you tell one versus the other, what the criteria are for something being productive or destructive, and how you find the needle in the haystack among all of the potentially destructive things – you know, the needle in the haystack being the productive political opportunities. I think those are open questions for me that are coming out of this conversation that I really appreciate thinking about.


David Primo:              These are all excellent points. And the challenge that we have, going back to what I was talking about earlier with the sorting, is that Americans in some sense have voted with their feet in that they’re not particularly interested in this sort of dialogue and discourse, that it’s – either they just tune out politics – so, it’s not that they’re being destructive; it’s just that they don’t care to talk about it – or they’re so busy trying to make ends meet, focus on family, that politics is just not a priority.


So, getting this to the top of the priority list is going to be a challenge. And that’s where I think elites of society, that that’s where the elites come in, because the elites are the ones who are the big problem, in the sense that they are the ones who have become extraordinarily polarized. And so, if we start there, that’s a good place to start because then hopefully it can set the tone for the rest of society, just as this same set of elites has set the tone for the kinds of rhetoric that we see on both the left and the right with regard to politics today. And going back to a point I made earlier, I think that’s where diversity of all sorts becomes really important, just interacting with people who are different than you.


Now, I think that, again, viewpoint diversity is that one piece that’s been missing, especially in universities. But just more generally, interacting with people who are different than you is a good place to start. And that’s something that – again, that’s something simple perhaps that any American can do. But again, there has to be that motivation to make it a priority.


Joan Saab:                  This reminds me of a story that I read a couple weeks ago, and I think it was The New York Times – right? – the failing New York Times, fake news, et cetera. But it was really interesting and it had to do with who sends their children to college. And it was about this elite class. And so, amongst many on what we would call the right there’s this distrust of higher education. But amongst that group the top five percent all are sending their children to college, and they’re sending them to what we would call elite universities. And so, it’s a polarization along class lines, but that’s concentrating the type of knowledge production that we’re talking about in really peculiar and interesting ways. So, it’s sort of replicating it but also siphoning it off. So, it – I thought that was interesting because it is amongst what we would call the sort of conservative right. They’re still – the very rich amongst them, or those who can, are still for the most part sending their children to college and they’re not saying, “Oh, you don’t need to college.” But this idea or this hostility towards education is trickling down to – and doing, I think, a real disservice to people who would benefit from being in a college classroom in terms of economic mobility and this sort of face-to-face exchange of ideas.


Jim Ver Steeg:            That’s a really important point because what we’ve been thinking about in terms of this conversation has been around discourse and around what seems like political polarization, but knowledge construction, co-construction is an important element there. Dave?


David Primo:              We’ve been talking a lot about what the role universities play in all of this is. And I’ve been keeping track here during our conversation: We’ve mentioned at least seven different disciplines, at least indirectly or directly, during this conversation, which suggests that the role for universities here in helping us understand this idea of disagreement and productive disagreement, not just off our commentary – so, Kevin has been talking about some of the research he’s been doing. I’m teaching a course next year hopefully, a seminar course called “Disagreement in a Democratic Society” that’s going to touch on a lot of these questions and is going to be explicitly multidisciplinary. So, the fact that we have universities where different disciplines can come together is an opportunity. But this needs to be a priority for universities. And they – again, there’s often a lot of talk about how it’s important but there’s not actually a lot of commitment to actually making that happen in a programmatic way.




Kevin Meuwissen:      So, this, I think, is a really important point because it highlights one of the key distinctions between higher education and K-12 education. Based on what Dave is saying about what’s possible in a university setting, I see a pretty clear distinction between interdisciplinary possibilities and the structure of university curricula and instructional opportunities and K-12 circumstances where the disciplines are a little bit more – a little bit? – a lot more structured. You take your math class for 40 minutes, then you go to your history class for 40 minutes, et cetera, et cetera. Schools are not – K-12 schools are not really well-equipped to build curricula and instruction around studying and working to deal with these political problems, to sort of study broader social and political problems and to move towards this idea or sort of superordinate social and political goals. That’s a word that I borrowed from a really, really great book by Lilli Mason, who is a political scientist, called Uncivil Agreement, where she looks at how we’ve come – how we have become hyper-sorted and what needs to be dealt with in order to address that sort of hyper-sorting.


And one of the suggestions is that – that she makes in the book is that we find ways to press people back into cross-cutting social and political arenas where they have to spend time thinking about sort of superordinate goals, or goals that are related to big social and political problems that we all sort of face as humans. And schools and universities are really a great place to press people back into these cross-cutting social and political arenas to pursue these kind of conversations. Except, as my colleagues just mentioned, the university is a much more flexible space to do that than the K-12 setting right now, so it bears some consideration about what changes need to be made at the K-12 setting, particularly in secondary schools, to allow for these kinds of conversations to happen around these bigger issues that are interdisciplinary.


Jim Ver Steeg:            Well, thank each of you, for joining us in this conversation. I truly appreciate it. I know that we talked about a lot of important stuff. I know that the answers are still out there to be uncovered, but this, I think, has been very helpful to understand some of what we’re seeing in public and political discourse in America today. So, I appreciate it. Joan Saab, Vice Provost of Academic Affairs and the Susan B. Anthony Professor of Art History and Visual and Cultural Studies, thank you for joining us.


Joan Saab:                  My pleasure.


Jim Ver Steeg:            David Primo, the Ani and Mark Gabrellian Professor of Political Science and Business Administration, thank you for joining us.


David Primo:              Thank you. This was a lot of fun.


Jim Ver Steeg:            I appreciate you being here. And Kevin Meuwissen, Associate Professor at the Warner School, near and dear to my heart, thank you for being here.


Kevin Meuwissen:      Yeah, my pleasure. This was great.


Jim Ver Steeg:            This has been the University of Rochester’s Quadcast, the official podcast of the University of Rochester. I’m Jim Ver Steeg. Thanks for listening.





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