For Democracy, Talking Is More Important Than Agreeing
Associate Professor Rachel Wahl is helping students understand and embrace the value of talking with people who hold different political opinions.
Rachel Wahl asks a lot of questions.
What happens if people who disagree politically talk about politics? Who feels like they’ve been heard? How does that impact individuals and society? What conditions make those discussions positive? What are the ethical considerations in asking people to talk politics?
An associate professor and director of the social foundations of education program in the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development, Wahl explores big questions about education and politics.
Political Dialogue, a course taught by Wahl in 2023, is the first in a new series called “democracy practicum courses.” The idea is to combine academic theories of democracy with application – in this case, political dialogue.
The course is slated to return for the 2024 spring term.
“Democracy relies on education for its legitimacy and its strength,” Wahl said. “In theory, it’s the reason our University was founded. While Jefferson is himself a highly contentious figure, our university has inherited the ideal that democracy depends on an educated citizenry.”
Wahl said democracy is sustained by people who are willing and able to engage in meaningful dialogue with others, especially those with different opinions.
“[Philosopher] John Dewey believed that democracy is a way of life, one that depends on people cultivating minds that are flexible, willing to experiment, and willing to entertain the ideas of others and respond dynamically, rather than rigidly, to other possibilities for how to live together,” she said.
Wahl has studied political dialogue in many settings, but much of her work focuses on university campuses. Recently, she was tapped to be the faculty lead for the Education School’s collaborations with the Karsh Institute for Democracy.
In this role, she is helping UVA students understand and embrace the value of political dialogue, especially with classmates they don't agree with politically. She is helping them ask more and better questions – and then really listen to the answers.
Democracy and Education
Last school year, Emily LeGree was making final tweaks to her class schedule when she stumbled across the Political Dialogue course.
“I thought it sounded interesting, because I am so frustrated with the way the U.S. government is right now and how polarized it is,” the third-year youth and social innovation student said. “So I wanted to take a class where we can learn more about that and how to bridge the divide a little bit.”
In the course, students study the theory of political deliberation and dialogue. Then, they practice having in-depth discussions about current events with their classmates.
Wahl begins the course by helping students create their own discussion guidelines, to establish a foundation of trust. Each week, they gather in a circle and dive into current events – last fall, the nine students in the class spent a lot of time on COVID vaccine mandates. Wahl is there to guide the conversation, but she always lets students take the lead.
“I was scared at first, but I loved it,” said Carolyn Carbaugh, who also took the class last fall. “Dr. Wahl was able to effectively create an atmosphere built on open communication and intellectual exploration. There was a sense of security that came with our group members’ respect for one another.”
A theme of Wahl’s work is that politics is inseparable from other dimensions of human experience. She said that trying to separate a person’s emotions and experiences from their political views is futile. Ultimately, all politics are personal.
In discussions, students do more than argue about whether specific policies are right or wrong. They share personal stories and explore deeper topics about their hopes for society.
LeGree said the course was challenging, and at times, frustrating and emotional. “They’re hard conversations, and it gets heavy,” she said. “It was almost like a group therapy session. Dr. Wahl would help us make sense of the difficulties we were having in a conversation from a theoretical perspective and help us understand why all of us see things differently. She was able to connect the pieces for us in a broader way.”
The Value of Dialogue
Wahl is not naïve. She doesn’t believe all the world’s problems can be solved by just “talking it out.” It can cause harm and not everyone is prepared to have a healthy dialogue. But she believes talking serves an important purpose.
“It’s very, very rare for anybody to change their mind about political issues. But they do frequently change their mind about the people on the other side,” Wahl said. “I think what they see is that there’s actually a whole range of beliefs and aspirations that are recognizably good.”
Carbaugh said one of her biggest takeaways from the course was that there is value in a political discussion where the only agenda is to listen. “I learned that not every political discussion needs to be an argument,” she said. “It helped me surrender this idea that I need to change people and that all political discussions are a zero-sum game.”
“It’s worth investigating sometimes why people believe certain things,” she added. “It helps you realize that everybody’s stories and struggles and traumas inform how they view politics and how they view solutions. People who on paper might have different beliefs than me can also have some really good points that can inform my own beliefs.”
LeGree said the course helped her become a better listener, and to feel much more open to talking with family members who have different political views. “I think it changed me a lot in ways I don’t even fully know yet,” she said.
Wahl’s efforts to create spaces for healthy political dialogue on Grounds will soon expand beyond her classroom.
With funding from the Office of the President and the Provost’s Fund for Institutionally Related Research, Wahl is collaborating with Melody Barnes, executive director of the Karsh Institute of Democracy, on an initiative called “Is the Good Life Political?: Civic Engagement, Ethics and Student Well-Being.” An intellectual community of 16 faculty fellows from diverse disciplines across Grounds have been selected to create student experiences based on ethics, public life and student engagement.
The goal is to create more opportunities for students to engage with politics in healthy ways.
For LeGree, the course sparked a friendship that she might not have otherwise found.
“It’s funny, because [my closest friend from the class is] the one I disagreed with the most politically,” she said. “We would butt heads the most in class, and we are such different people. But it’s good because it broadens my view on things.
“We’re both people who know what we believe in. I’m very passionate about what I believe, but it’s not fair for me to be so strong in my views that I don’t listen to anyone else. I think he’s found that, too.”