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Kalish: Hope

For many schools, now, graduation has come and gone. But, I teach at Dartmouth, where the academic schedule pushes graduation well into June. So my days are still filled with thesis presentations, Senior Fellowship readings, and other events … like a Senior Voice Recital where I found out that my exceptional Public Policy student also has a trained, operatic singing voice.

Performances. Exhibits. Inductions into scientific honor societies. Students are harvesting the fruits of their hard work. I go to these events and couldn’t feel more proud.

But, I also feel hope.

It’s been a tough year for hope. I think I’m surprising no-one when I say that this year’s election cycle has been one of the toughest in our collective memory.

The level of anger, hatred and violence is unnerving. Both parties’ delegates and officials have received death threats. Journalists endure nasty personal attacks of every distasteful sort. And reporters covering campaign rallies are being offered “hostile environment awareness training” – something typically done to prepare journalists for riots, kidnappings, and firefights.

Two years ago, researchers from Stanford and Princeton observed the increasing polarization of the American electorate and noted that “polarization based on party is just as strong as polarization based on race.” They found partisans were willing to display “open animus” for one another in part because there was “an absence of norms governing the expression of negative sentiment.” Increased partisanship, they found, “provides an incentive for elites to engage in confrontation rather than cooperation.”

My students – these young, aspiring Dartmouth undergraduates – are being groomed to become such “elites.” So, I’ve found myself paying more attention in class to how they talk with one another. It’s become increasingly important to me that they learn how to disagree without demonizing, how to reach agreement. How to find common ground.

I see my students come out to support one another in these culminating moments of college success. They cheer. They bring flowers and food. They spill out into the hallways to hear the findings of their friends’ research.

These are remarkably talented, good people. And while they do form like-minded friendship clusters, right now, their relationships don’t turn on political party. They take pleasure in healthy disagreement and in being exposed to new ways of thinking.

These students believe in their capacity to make a difference in the world. And when I look at them… so do I.

Julie Kalish is a Vermont attorney and Lecturer at Dartmouth College in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. She is a board member for Vermont ACLU. She lives in Norwich.
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