In a recent Opinion piece for the New York Times, Jonathan Malesic, a professor of writing at the University of Texas at Dallas, reflected on the current state of political discourse on college campuses.
Issues of political discourse and partisanship on college campuses are not a new debate. Malesic claims that “commentators on the right and the ‘heterodox’ left often claim that college students are all either stridently liberal or cowed into silence by those who are.” This theme was explored in the 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind, which details instances of conservative speakers being disinvited from college campuses. In contrast, the presence of conservative overreach in education is evident in the recent controversy over Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E Act, which limits how professors can teach issues of racial inequality and imposes harsh penalties for those who fail to comply with the state-sanctioned viewpoints.
Political polarization has been steadily increasing in American society. Pew Research Center details how both parties’ voters have consistently been moving further from the center and, in turn, developing increasing antipathy towards one another. Higher education is just one of many issues where political polarization is becoming increasingly present in the discourse.
Malesic, however, is able to find hope for a future with less polarized political discourse. Where does he find it? Right here, in the Opinion section of student newspapers.
In some cases, Malesic finds student newspapers that are working explicitly to confront partisanship. He details the efforts of student editor Megan Tran of the “Daily Texan”. Tran found that in her publication, the article submissions they were seeing more consistently provided liberal perspectives and focused on certain types of campus issues. She made it her mission to hire student columnists that would provide a more diverse range of perspectives, with the goal of creating a paper that more faithfully represented the ideas of the student body.
But more importantly, Malesic finds the issues students are debating in their campus newspapers to be “endearingly local”. Some student newspapers included serious examinations on how to improve graduation rates or how ethical it is for a Baptist college to require students to attend chapel. Some were a little more silly, like whether or not it’s a good idea to feed campus squirrels. One student paper he looked at included an article on the best campus bathrooms, an incredibly important topic we here at the Fairfield Mirror opinion section have also been proud to cover. All across the pages were examples of students caring about each other and their entire campus community.
Malesic finds that the true controversies playing out in the pages of student newspapers are typically almost charmingly non-partisan. What raging culture war issue prompted two response articles and a flurry of online comments on “The Cor Chronicle” at the University of Dallas? Whether or not it should be considered acceptable to be barefoot in public campus spaces. This is something I certainly relate to from my time editing this section. I wrote exactly one article in my time as Opinion Editor that ever sparked controversy. It received a letter to the editor from a faculty member and earned me the summons for a disapproving lecture from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences himself. The topic? How the mission behind the Magis Core Signature Elements was being undermined by the limited availability and inconsistency of the classes that carried them. That’s about the furthest from politically salient you can get, but nonetheless, something that does impact the lives of Fairfield students.
Now I’m not here to pretend that everything I’ve written here was exactly hard-hitting. I’m sure nothing about our campus community changed dramatically because I once wrote a few hundred words warning people against trying to wear heels to Pres Ball. But hey, if I saved one naive freshman from blisters so bad they had to make the walk back from Bellarmine Hill barefoot and, I suppose, then face the wrath of the writers for “The Cor Chronicle,” it was certainly worth something.
Writing for the opinion section teaches you what I would argue is one of the most valuable real-world skills a person can have: the ability to care enough about your community to want to figure out how to make it better. Good opinion writing requires critical thinking about the issues facing your community. It requires listening to the people around you: the things that make them happy, the things that make them frustrated and everything in between. Opinion writing teaches you to better organize and articulate your own ideas about the world as it is and as it ought to be, a skill that is essential to the health of political discourse on campus and wherever else you may go in life.
Opinion articles can hold administrations accountable, they can help other students navigate the challenges of campus life and can offer suggestions on how to genuinely help improve the campus community. Student newspapers represent a unique opportunity for civic engagement. The value of that opportunity should not be discounted. Student newspapers might not be the magic bullet here to save us from everything toxic about American political discourse. But hey, it seems like a great place to start.