I love a good debate. Growing up in a household where my parents often held opposing political views, I learned that discussion sharpens our understanding of other perspectives. When I began my graduate degree in public health policy, I expected debate to be valued by my fellow students. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Promoting diversity is an essential component for public health students to grow into professionals capable of interacting with an increasingly diverse and divided America. While diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds are valued on campus, and rightly so, political diversity is stifled. The growing political division that afflicts American culture has crept into our classrooms. Our discussions are overwhelmed by groupthink: a round-robin of like-minded ideas where dissent is considered to be against the morals of the group. It is critical, in this period of severe political division, that the public health community evaluate how we discuss politics in the classroom.
At a midterm election viewing party thrown by public health students at my university, all victorious Democrats got applause, while every Republican was booed. A candidate’s qualifications came second to political party. There is a culture on campus of “us versus them” that suppresses healthy discussions in class. I have tried to spark conversations by playing devil’s advocate—arguing pro-business, pro-capitalism, and pro-religious expression. An uncomfortable silence falls over the classroom. This silence is a pillar of groupthink. It is a subtle but powerful influence that discourages students from thinking independently. Missed opportunities for students to explore ideas is the cost of letting this conformity persist.
There is a culture on campus of “us versus them” that suppresses healthy discussions in class.
Public health students likely fall on the left of the political spectrum, and this is especially true at my university, where Republicans make up 9% of the student body and faculty have a 40:1 Democrat/Republican ratio. We cannot let this overwhelming majority alienate our discussions from nearly half the US population. They are the people we hope to serve and therefore understanding their concerns and values is paramount.
Liberals are not the only Americans who care about public health. People across the political spectrum have a stake in health outcomes. It is our responsibility to consider the values of the people we are trying to serve when implementing evidence-based approaches. Communities are our primary stakeholders, and we need strategies beyond science to argue for public health. Even critical issues, such as climate change, can be dismissed when scientific evidence alone is used to rally public support. When “I don’t believe your science” is a viable counter argument, how do we connect with the community to make meaningful change?
It is our responsibility to consider the values of the people we are trying to serve when implementing evidence-based approaches.
Learning how to engage with communities politically should be a core competency in public health classes. There are well-documented methods that professors, managers, and students can follow to encourage critical thinking and constructively and respectfully debate challenges to our ideas. Ultimately, students should be encouraged by their peers and professors when they bring outside political perspectives into the classroom.
As public health students, we shape our learning environment. We have chosen to be comfortable rather than challenged. Our first responsibility towards ourselves is to be proactive rather than passive. If you disagree, embrace that difference and create a conversation. Be curious. This is our education, and we should not deprive ourselves any opportunity to learn, even when we need to be courageous and step out of our safe bubble. If we don’t we are only sabotaging ourselves and the people we hope to serve.
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