You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

An illustration depicting a collection of people, in a variety of colors.

wildpixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Now is the time for your college to make pluralism a central principle of campus life.

Yes, now, as you watch dueling protests on your quad and realize that diversity, free speech and social justice advocacy are important values for a college to uphold but incomplete without a commitment to cooperation across difference.

It’s a good thing for students from a range of identities and ideologies to passionately advocate for their views. But many of those students (not to mention staff and faculty members) are in extreme distress, feeling profound isolation, and a handful are even taking part in actions that border on physical violence. Some are no longer willing to sit in class together. One can only imagine the tension in the dining hall, the relationships that have crumbled and the number of student groups that are melting down.

Increasing education about the Middle East is of course a necessary step, and obviously part of the mission of a college, but it is unlikely to resolve the tension. After all, whole libraries can be filled with books that have been written on the region, newspapers have been publishing stories on the conflict for decades and professors regularly teach on the topic. The divisiveness remains.

In my work as founder and president of Interfaith America, an organization dedicated to proactively engaging religious diversity, I have come to believe that being able to work well with people with whom you disagree is the single most important value for a diverse community. Imagine if doctors who have different views on the war in the Middle East refused to perform heart surgery together. Or if firefighters who had different politics regarding gun control refused to fight fires together. Or if Little League coaches with different views on abortion refused to coach together.

Pluralism—which I define as people of diverse identities engaging one another with a respect/relate/cooperate ethos—is a founding value of the United States. The highest ideals of our nation hold that people who come from across the planet, speaking a variety of languages and praying in different ways, can come to this patch of land and build a democracy together. Think about it: we resettle refugees from both sides of civil wars because we believe that identity-based conflicts are contextual rather than inevitable.

College campuses should be models of cooperation between people of different identities and ideologies and training grounds for leaders who can bridge divides in a variety of sectors, from education to international diplomacy.

Unfortunately, over the past several years, too many of our campuses have embraced paradigms that actually increase tensions between groups rather than build pluralism.

Indeed, as the conflict on the quad heats up, you might realize that the offices you had hoped would serve as the “fire department”—places that you might call upon to facilitate constructive dialogue between students of diverse viewpoints—actually helped fan the flames that now threaten to engulf your college.

The good news is that, over the past decade or so, a strong pluralism field has emerged. There are funder collaboratives like the New Pluralists and major convenings like the recent Nantucket Project. Utah governor Spencer Cox has made pluralism the focus of his term as chair of the National Governors Association. And there are dozens of nonprofit organizations that focus on bridging divides. Many of these—like BridgeUSA, the Constructive Dialogue Institute, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, and my own organization, Interfaith America—do extensive work with college campuses.

Indeed, there is a growing campus-based pluralism movement, with a number of courses on civil discourse and a handful of centers like the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University, the Karsh Center for Law and Democracy at the University of Virginia, and the Othering and Belonging Institute and the Greater Good Science Center, both at the University of California, Berkeley.

It’s a start, but not nearly enough. Our nation needs every campus to have a center for pluralism.

A center for pluralism would gather the faculty, advance the research, teach the courses, host the guest lectures and, most importantly, train students to be leaders in pluralism. It could administer surveys to gauge the pluralism orientation of students, run workshops during first-year orientation to help every incoming freshman have basic skills for constructive conversations across difference and organize a student fellowship to prepare a small number of people who seek to be expert practitioners of pluralism.

The center can draw from an impressive literature, written by both academics and journalists, on pluralism. These include classic works in political philosophy like Talking to Strangers by Danielle Allen, We Hold These Truths by John Courtney Murray, Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Confident Pluralism by John Inazu and Democracy and Tradition by Jeffrey Stout. There are books in political science that explore our partisan divide like Uncivil Agreement by Lilliana Mason, Divided We Fall by David French and Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein. There is a whole tradition in sociology that looks at how groups either come apart or come together, including the studies of Gordon Allport and Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif in contact theory, Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, Ashutosh Varshney’s Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life and virtually everything that Robert Putnam has written. There are important books in moral psychology that look at the role of identity formation in relation to conflict, like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and Appiah’s The Lies That Bind. And there is a growing practitioner literature that highlights the skills of strengthening relationships across difference. These include Mónica Guzmán’s I Never Thought of It That Way, Amanda Ripley’s High Conflict, Peter Coleman’s The Way Out, Eric Liu’s Become America, David Brooks’s How to Know a Person and Arthur Brooks’s Love Your Enemies.

Even if your campus is not coming apart regarding the Middle East conflict, it may well do so around the politics of abortion or gun control, or events related to the upcoming election. Truth be told, a diverse democracy will have no shortage of issues that divide people. We need leaders with the knowledge and skills to make sure that people can disagree on some fundamental things while working together on other fundamental things. We want students to be protesting respectfully on the quad, but we also need them to be working together to find cures for cancer in our laboratories and collaborating on new technologies in our engineering schools. Moreover, employers from virtually every sector are seeking to hire people with the skills to turn potentially contentious issues—like which books to include in a school curriculum—into opportunities for collaboration rather than conflict.

In every generation, American campuses have stepped up to help address the urgent needs of the nation. Right now, the great problem we face in the United States is high conflict, and the urgent need is cooperation across difference. In this moment of extreme polarization, to serve the nation and improve themselves, campuses need to become laboratories and launching pads for pluralism.

Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith America and host of the Interfaith America With Eboo Patel podcast. His most recent book is We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy (Beacon Press, 2022).

Next Story

Written By

Found In

More from Views