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April 20, 2023+Bryan Gentry
+Campus Climate+Constructive Disagreement+Campus Policy

The Dining Hall Could Help Save Democracy

Most discussions about preparing college students for democratic citizenship revolve around the curriculum. We hope that students well versed in Plato’s Republic, de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, and the Federalist Papers will value the American project and rally to save it.

That kind of education is indispensable. But some of higher education’s greatest contributions to an ailing republic might come from the cafeteria as well as the classroom.

It might sound overly optimistic to suggest sharing lunch when protestors storm the U.S. Capitol or torch crisis pregnancy centers. After all, one in five Americans condone such violence, and about half of the country at least somewhat believes that we are on the brink of civil war. But universities can pull back against these extremes by building social networks that cross political boundaries. The dining hall can play a powerful part in that process if we allow it to.

Anti-Polarization Over Lunch

My personal experience bears this out. I grew up listening to Rush Limbaugh, and for years I consumed talk radio dutifully, memorizing talking points so that I could repeat them in a debate with a liberal — if only I ever met one.

For two years I attended a community college whose dining hall was like a fast-food joint where nobody knows your name; faculty ate behind a screened panel separating them from students. But then I transferred to a small, religiously aligned college with a more traditional cafeteria. There, I rarely ate alone. Nearly every student waited in the buffet line and packed the dining hall. Professors and even the college president often joined us.

Most of my new peers shared my faith, and many of them shared my conservative politics, but some held a more liberal perspective. They surprised me. They weren’t the godless Democrats I’d heard about on talk radio. They were my friends and classmates. We ate together, studied together, and worshiped together. Over time their influence made me more open-minded. I changed my views on some issues and valued compromise on others.

Eventually, this diverse social network transformed me from a proud, polarized Republican to a committed moderate. You’ll never see me storm the Capitol, although I might race you to be first in line at the buffet.

Dining Halls Provide Food for Thought

Why did campus dining experiences pull me away from polarized politics? I believe the answer lies in research about how food builds community and how community affects politics.

Students connect with one another in dining halls and build community there. This effect is so strong that researchers at the University of Iowa found that students who enter the dining hall alone are more likely to drop out of school. Everything about the dining hall experience — waiting in line, finding a place to sit, and breaking bread — can form bonds.

If those bonds cross ideological lines, they may help reduce partisan feelings. “Friends variably affect each other’s political preferences … by reinforcing or challenging current views on parties, politicians, and policy issues,” Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz wrote in The Social Logic of Politics. It’s difficult to form an echo chamber when we cram together in a dining hall.

In addition to challenging stereotypes, students who eat together may trust one another and cooperate more. Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach have shown that negotiators reach successful agreements more quickly when they are eating the same kind of food, likely because of increased trust. The effect is even stronger when people eat from the same dish, such as sharing chips or fries, and it works with complete strangers. “Sharing plates can bring together more than just allies,” they write.

The tradition of shared meals can sustain friendship and trust, even when disagreements strain those ties. In her book Eating Together: Food, Friendship and Inequality, Alice Julier tells the story of a couple who hosted frequent potlucks with friends. One potluck goer shared that “even when he’d had a disagreement with [one of the hosts] about softball, work, or politics, it would have been unthinkable … not to attend.” Who knows how that friend group would fare today, when longtime friendships and even marriages end over politics? But in this case, the partygoers’ relationships were more important than politics.

All this may have an immediate effect in the classroom. Four years of Heterodox Academy Campus Expression Survey data show that students who interact more with peers are more likely to express their views in class, even on subjects that tend to raise controversy.

Taken together, these studies and perspectives demonstrate that politically diverse students who wait in line together, select their meals from the same menu, and perhaps share their fries may see past their stereotypes and trust one another. Later on, when they discuss issues in class, they may speak more openly and respectfully. This may, in turn, lead to more civil discourse in their political lives.

The Disappearing Dining Hall

Unfortunately, at least three trends on campus and in society are undermining the ability for our dining experiences to build bridges across political differences.

Consider isolation. A report by one market research group showed that U.S. adults eat nearly half of their meals and snacks alone. We eat breakfast in the car, and fast-paced work keeps us at our desks for lunch. When we eat in public, smartphones often shield us from interaction. Like the faculty at my community college 20 years ago, we eat behind a screen.

This isolation relates to a second challenge: the shift from communal dining to convenient eating. Cafeterias are supplemented, and sometimes supplanted, by food courts where students can stare at phones in line at Chick-fil-A or Panera Bread. At 270 U.S. colleges, we can order food on GrubHub and nearly eliminate line waiting, too.

These options are popular: In one recent survey, a fifth of students said they wanted to see more “portable, handheld” food options, and nearly half wished for more food delivery on campus. But by catering to these wishes, we forfeit communities that students could build over shared meals.

The third force affecting community in campus dining is political polarization, which prevents some from forming relationships that cross ideological lines. If all the Republican kids are sitting together in the cafeteria, they won’t build mutual understanding with the Democrats, and vice versa.

These three factors pose a challenge for higher education and for democracy. If students are less likely to eat together, and even less likely to eat with someone with whom they disagree politically, they will have fewer conversations, less diverse social networks, and weaker trust. Their political stereotypes and ideas will have fewer challenges.

To counter these forces, universities need to invest in creative solutions that encourage people to eat together (or at least meet together) regardless of different views.

The answer could be mealtime discussion groups, combined dinner meetings for the College Democrats and College Republicans, or lunch clubs united by nonpolitical interests. It may be time for student orientation to discuss the value of slowing down to eat and the mental health benefits of connecting with others. The Heterodox Academy Campus Communities that were formed on 23 campuses earlier this year could lead this effort with a distinct focus on bringing together people for civil discourse over a meal.

Regardless of the solution we choose, research and experience suggest that strengthening the sense of community that forms around shared meals could improve discourse on campus and, in turn, strengthen democracy. Our students’ shared plates may help them prepare for citizenship — perhaps as much as shared discussions of Plato.


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