Bridgewater State students recently participated in the Unify Challenge’s College Bowl, an initiative designed to tackle polarization among Americans. After participants fill out a brief form with questions about their background and political identity, they get matched with someone who is (ideally) very different from them. Some students were required to take part in the challenge for a class. I signed up voluntarily because I’m the type of poli sci nerd whose idea of a good time is extra homework.
After my partner and I were matched, we were given a list of goals for American society to discuss. Given the state of national politics, you might expect a conversation regarding abortion, gun control, and policing between a Massachusetts liberal and a Florida conservative to be explosive. But I was pleasantly surprised how respectful our conversation was. I found myself articulating my thoughts about controversial topics in a way I rarely would. There ended up being real freedom in talking to a stranger. I wasn’t worrying about how I was going to be perceived because I knew we were never going to see each other again.
I’m not sure either of us walked away with our minds changed on any one topic. But the real value of the challenge for me was that it forced me to think about why I believe the things I do. It’s often said that humans are social creatures, and that we’re inclined to form groups because they make us feel secure. When those develop into echo chambers, it can be easy to absorb the opinions of those around us (or the talking points of a political party) without thinking critically about them. Talking about my political beliefs with someone I disagreed with forced me to take a step back and evaluate the reasons behind my opinions.
As students, we should seek to be challenged. Hearing alternative perspectives may change our minds, but it is also the best way to strengthen the beliefs we already have. If we can acknowledge reasonable criticism and still explain why we think we’re correct, our arguments will be better for it.
There are still college bowl slots open in the coming weeks. If my experience piqued your interest, I encourage you to sign up, even if politics intimidate you. Trust yourself, embrace the discomfort, and you may come out the other side more confident in your ability to engage in the tough conversations that need to happen in order to build a better future.