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Let Students Set The Agenda For Viewpoint Diversity

The last two years have presented young people with unprecedented opportunities to appreciate and practice viewpoint diversity in the United States. In 2020 alone, they were confronted with a global pandemic, national protests following the murder of George Floyd, and one of the most contentious election cycles our country has seen in generations, while 2021 only intensified the disagreements around these events. And 2022 has already exposed young people to deeply complex and challenging global events, namely, the invasion of Russia into Ukraine just this past week.

Whether it’s the merit of masks and vaccines, the substance and validity of critical race theory, or the meaning of election integrity, young Americans are coming of age during one of the most polarized chapters in our nation’s recent history. Viewpoint diversity — that is, the practice of welcoming and listening to diverse views — is no longer something they can opt in and out of exploring; it is in the air they breathe.

Therefore, we should expect that students today have their own ideas about how to approach viewpoint diversity in ways that move our splintered society toward the common good and away from polarization. Rather than imposing what may have worked in the past, we argue it is time that faculty and staff empower students to design their own generationally informed approaches to engaging viewpoint diversity on campus.

Move Over, Institutions

One key attribute that differentiates Generation Z’s approach to viewpoint diversity is their distrust toward institutions. For decades, Americans have grown less and less confident in America’s institutions, and young people today are no exception. According to the General Social Survey, Generation Z is less likely than Generation X and millennials (when they were young) to share a great deal of confidence in institutions.

Figure: General Social Survey (GSS), 1972-2021 – Gen Z is similarly trusting or less trusting of American institutions than Millenials were when they were young

Consider how prevalent the desire to see more accountability and transparency has become in the United States over the last five to 10 years, as scandals have plagued America’s politics, faith communities, and even charities. It’s not hard to imagine why young people today are leery of even the most seemingly innocent and well-intentioned institutions.

With this in mind, consider how students today might receive an invitation to an institutionally sponsored opportunity to discuss viewpoint diversity. They might be leery about who is (and is not) setting the agenda, the intentions behind the event, and who is going to benefit from the event — in other words, concerns you might expect from people who don’t trust you.

This is especially true of institutions that might have political or religious ties to a particular viewpoint. For example, if a Catholic college decides to host a conversation about reproductive rights, students may fear the conversation will not actually support viewpoint diversity but instead be influenced by the institution’s affiliation with a pro-life agenda.

What can you do? Instead of leading with institutional clout, faculty and staff should consider how they might empower students toward a grassroots effort to appreciate viewpoint diversity on campus. Practically speaking, this could include approaching student organizations and inviting them to consider planning a program with your support, rather than you or your department planning a program and inviting their attendance. Instead of leading the conversations, encourage students to build and shape their own platform for these conversations.

A Lack of Certainty

A 2021 study from Springtide Research Institute found that young people today are experiencing a high degree of uncertainty in nearly every area of their lives. Nearly 1 in 3 young people across a weighted national sample matching the demographics of the country expressed that they are currently undergoing a challenging event that is causing uncertainty or stress in their lives.

A variety of factors have historically caused uncertainty among young people — changes in relationships and school or work settings, to name a few. But this generation is also navigating a global pandemic, causing the uncertainty to feel like a constant presence.

As a case in point, uncertainty imbues their relationship with religion and spirituality, a primary focus of Springtide’s research. More than half of young people told Springtide in 2021, “I agree with some, but not all, of the things my religion teaches” (53%) and “I don’t feel like I need to be connected to a specific religion” (55%). Nearly half agreed, “I feel like I could fit in with many different religions” (47%).

Many young people today are rejecting a rigid one-size-fits-all catechesis that many religious institutions and faith leaders seek to offer them in favor of spiritual paths that embrace a higher degree of uncertainty and flexibility. Springtide calls this phenomenon “faith unbundled.”

For young people, the term “viewpoint diversity” might imply they need to have a fairly high level of certainty about where they stand in the viewpoint continuum of a certain issue. In other words, one might unwittingly be proposing that students come to the table with a packaged viewpoint, ready to place it in conversation with another packaged viewpoint. Where does this leave the majority of young people who, while navigating a high degree of uncertainty in their lives right now, are approaching polarizing issues with a similar degree of uncertainty?

Consider also how often rigid viewpoints are tethered to institutions that young people don’t trust. Whether it’s assenting to the standard doctrinal positions of a particular denomination, conforming to the policy norms of a political party, or experiencing the social pressure of affirming militarism or scientism, institutions often demand a level of viewpoint affinity that young people today find stifling.

What can you do? Instead of framing your viewpoint diversity initiative in a way that assumes students fall neatly and confidently into ideological camps, boldly invite uncertainty into the conversation from the start. Consider framing the conversation as a safe forum to navigate uncertainty, where participants can freely discuss their perspectives without the pressure to resolve or apply their viewpoint.

When Springtide asked young people in 2021 how they hope to be treated when they’re navigating uncertainty, the most popular response was, “Just let me talk to you” (56%) when selecting from a range of options. On the other hand, participants were much less interested in attempts to resolve their uncertainty. Options like “Help me see the potential outcomes” (35%), “Help me get information so that I can make a decision or move through it” (31%), and “Lay out my options for me so I don’t have to figure it out” (21%) were much less popular.

The place of uncertainty needs to play a greater role in conversations surrounding viewpoint diversity with students today. This doesn’t mean the conversation should be grounded in a commitment to ideological relativism or agnosticism, where the preferred outcome is to become or remain decidedly uncertain. Rather, a greater appreciation for viewpoint uncertainty would mean operating from an acknowledgment of the uncertain context in which impressionable young people are being formed and are forming their perspectives.

Multiple Sources of Meaning

As young people wade in uncertain waters and seek more distance from institutions, Springtide is finding that they are refusing one-stop-shop ideologies to make sense of all their experiences and instead drawing meaning from a variety of sources.

For example, a young atheist might draw meaning from nihilism, crystals, the philosophy of Malcolm X, and protests against environmental crimes. A young Latter-day Saint might draw inspiration from “The Pearl of Great Price,” tarot cards, and meditation.

Some might argue this smacks of consumerism, with a marketplace of ideologies all up for grabs and little concern for questions of appropropriation or context.

However, Casper ter Kuile argues in the forward of Springtide’s The State of Religion & Young People 2021: Navigating Uncertainty,

By finding ways to piece together their varying family histories, geographic and cultural contexts, personal interests and sensibilities, young people are attempting to experience a wholeness and connection that demands curiosity and flexibility if they are to stay true to the people they understand themselves to be.

It′s no surprise that young people resist a fixed definition about what it means to be religious today. Just as gender expressions, sexualities, and racial identities are now understood on a richer spectrum and grounded in intersectionality, young Americans are reimagining religiosity, spirituality, or faith as something that opposes a stark “in” or “out,” “this” or “that” way of compartmentalizing … Young people find institutional identity or whole group cohesion not only unattractive but often untrustworthy.

What can you do? Zooming out, this suggests we should not rely on strict “pro-X” and “pro-Y” frames of reference to drive our conversations around viewpoint diversity with students today. Doing so will only create frustration for a generation that is renegotiating terms and traditional positions on things, placing more value on authenticity and transparency than cohesion.

Rather than asking students to meld all their identities and sources of meaning into a single frame of reference within the discussion, faculty and facilitators can invite students to reflect on how their unique blend of identities and sources of meaning shape their perspective.

This may appear like a challenge for conversations around viewpoint diversity, which are often seen as binary. Opening up these conversations to multifaceted perspectives could make it more difficult to establish ideological boundaries for a dialogue.

However, in turn, this generation of students could also challenge and refine the culture of viewpoint diversity conversations in higher education in important ways. By relocating the power of facilitating these conversations from academics to students, these conversations will likely become more diverse and democratic. By more boldly welcoming uncertainty at the table, these conversations will likely become more holistic and free-flowing. By making space for participants to draw inspiration from multiple sources of meaning, these conversations will likely feel less like an academic thought experiment and more like a community potluck. In other words, less encamped in predictable perspectives and more inviting of diverse, evolving viewpoints.

Rising to the Moment

Our efforts to engage students on viewpoint diversity need to rise to the moment. Students are navigating an unprecedented global pandemic that has thrown their future plans into disarray. They inherited a distrustful posture toward institutions from millenials and this disparity of trust is only growing. They are constructing new ways to be religious, political, professional, and more, embracing the gray and drawing from multiple sources of meaning. They don’t trust agendas handed down from institutional actors – they want to co-construct their education and experiences.

With that in mind, a good first step is to ask students on your campus, “How are these conversations on campus best approached in a highly uncertain season in our common life, when we have tons of problems and no easy solutions?”

This is a path for young people to engage with institutions and their traditions without feeling bound by them. Providing a platform for students to help set the agenda for these conversations will ensure they continue to explore the rich diversity of viewpoints surrounding life’s deepest questions.


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