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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Essay: Political science classes at GW isolate students in an ideological bubble

“Does anyone have any contrasting opinions?” is a phrase I have heard all too many times in a political science classroom as the professor scans the class for brave hands in the air. The existing raised hands, eager to add onto a previously constructed argument with a new point, immediately retreat to their resting positions. Instead, eyes dart around the room, surveying the desks for an unexpected “traitor.”

Alas, the room is quiet and the professor moves on. The faint clicking of keyboards resumes and the status quo remains unchanged. On occasion, the professor offers to “play devil’s advocate,” every political science student’s favorite game, and the class erupts with deep sighs and eyerolls. The conversation never goes far, as students regurgitate previously vocalized ideas, and the professor moves on, defeated.

While it’s important to surround yourself with like-minded individuals who share similar worldviews to your own, there is such a thing as too much congruent company. Every year, GW admits hundreds of students to its political science and international affairs programs, drawing young minds from all over the world. The programs promise to immerse students in a well-rounded and holistic education, meant to prepare young adults for careers in public service and government.

But although my classes provide me with substantial knowledge in political science and international affairs, I often feel that I am insulated in an ideological bubble. As I participate in classroom discussions, I rarely, if ever, find myself disagreeing with the general tone of what is being said by my classmates. That is not to say that I do not learn new things or gain a deeper understanding of material through these discussions, but as for broadening my understanding and being exposed to a range of different opinions, I find my classes leaving much to be desired.

While I sit and listen to my classmates articulate their opinions and comfortably share my own, I feel a sense of validation and safety emanating from within the room. I’ll admit, I enjoy watching my classmates nod in agreement. I like hearing my own thoughts reverberated around the room. I even take pleasure in looking over and seeing The New York Times open on my classmate’s laptop to a piece I read earlier that day. I feel content knowing that my view is at least outwardly shared by the rest of the class.

But is this ecochamber-like environment effectively preparing me for a career in government and public policy? When I zoom out from my desk in a dimly lit classroom in the basement of the Elliott School, it is clear that I operate in a very niche environment. The entirety of the country – let alone the world – is not listening to “Morning Edition” from NPR on their walk to class and tuning into CNN to catch the news in the afternoon. In fact, this is one of the luxuries of our democracy.

In just two and a half short years, the safety blanket that has coddled me will be ripped off, and I will be left exposed in a landscape very different from the one in which I have resided for quite some time. I will be flung into the real world, engaging with people who will inevitably look at the world through a rather different lens than I do. When I peer into this future, having little experience communicating with people whose ideologies differ from my own does not seem quite as comforting anymore. It seems daunting, and it should.

Of course, feeling safe and understood is important to one’s development. Students should feel some level of comfort – and certainly physical safety – on their college campus. But the importance of discomfort should not be understated. My bachelor’s of art degree in political science will mean nothing if I cannot communicate with and civilly address people who have differing opinions from my own. Being able to articulate contested ideas and engage in meaningful discourse is paramount to just about any position in politics.

These four years in college are meant to sharpen students’ abilities to form opinions and substantiate them respectfully and effectively. I should be learning how to respond to ideas that challenge my own and build a framework for finding common ground and pushing forward – but this is not the case.

Now, more than ever, we are seeing the detrimental effects of division in our country. While college campuses are by no means the root of this problem, they do highlight an effect of it. We will never be able to bridge the divide if we are not exposed to opinions that challenge our own and acquire tools for thoughtful debate.

Sometimes discomfort is the greatest learning experience of all – but it is one that I am not getting in my political science classes at GW.

Katarina Engst, a sophomore majoring in political science, is an opinions writer.

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