There are certainly topics that should not be a part of a classroom discussion. However, when a student voices an unfounded or offensive view, it is best to engage them. For example, a student may raise the misperception that people living in poverty do not care about the education of their children. The professor can note that this is unsupported by research, and ask all students to consider the source of this view and who it serves, as well as some productive counterarguments. This process models dialogue to students and invites them to participate and to learn more about their own positions and reasons.

In all discussions, faculty members should model an open mind, the ability to be persuaded and empathetic listening. Faculty members must also be ready to admit mistakes. They may wish to go back to contentious moments in the next class and say ‘this matter stayed with me. Let’s revisit your comments from last week. Can you help me to understand?’

Talk about difficult topics

Uncomfortable topics are part of the syllabus for some courses: for example, American history professors regularly discuss slavery. But in any discipline, students might bring up controversies. For example, students in an astronomy class may dispute the use of a telescope built on Indigenous lands or a meteorology student may question whether climatic change can be attributed to human actions.

In either case, brushing the issue aside without giving students the opportunity for discussion could cause increased polarization and distrust.

Faculty members should address hard topics (without sabotaging the lesson). To do this, they can include relevant hard topics on the syllabus; welcome such topics into class discussion when students bring them up; and in cases of polarized disagreement between students, devote a few minutes to assessing the nature of the disagreement, differences in knowledge and values, and possible common ground.

Choose the goal

When discussing a contentious topic or making time for diverse views, be clear about the goal: whether one intends to foster familiarity with diverse views or to persuade students of a particular view. This will depend on whether the question is open or closed.

An open question is one about which reasonable people can disagree, such as climate mitigation policies9. For such questions, faculty members should elicit, welcome and rely on diverse views — ones that people in class hold as well as views held by others.

A closed question is one that has one correct answer or set of answers — for example, human-caused climate change. Faculty members should be clear about the facts, but remain open to other views (especially if they are represented in class or in broader society). Asking a student ‘why do you hold this view or belief? What does that mean for you?’ can help all students to become familiar with these positions as well as their limitations.

In some cases, it is hard to conclude whether a question is open or closed, as controversies can arise about evidence. For example, in discussing abortion, matters of religion and morality (doctrine, virtues or rights) and science (‘when does life begin?’) can cause tension. In medical school, faculty members should treat these as closed questions because the goal of the discussion should be to communicate best practice for medical practitioners. However, in a political science class, the aim should be to ensure exposure to the reasons behind different positions.

Engage students in constructive dialogue

Exposing students to information or diverse views is not enough. Faculty members across disciplines should provide opportunities for students to understand where other people stand and to learn about their reasons for holding the views they hold10. For example, faculty members can:

  • Ask students to share their views in groups, craft the best counterargument they can think of and respond to it together.
  • Have students serve as ‘expert witnesses’ in a discussion of a hard issue.
  • In a public health class, ask students to debate the diverse reasons that people oppose vaccines and to address their arguments.
  • In a Western civilization course, ask students to explore differences in views about history and culture that are best explored openly.
  • In a discussion of Israel–Palestine, clarify that the goal is not to agree on a solution — many good minds have failed so far — but to understand the conflicting narratives and positions, with empathy and humanity.

Finding common ground

Depolarization in college is not a matter of directing students towards a middle ground between extreme positions. Rather it is an ongoing process of finding common ground: learning about what we share and what we already know, identifying issues we want to learn more about, and doing so together. This process can help to build trust and the capacity for cooperation, both of which are necessary for self-governance and democratic sustainability.

Universities depolarize by providing students with opportunities to expand their knowledge alongside people from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. This process can build trust in others’ humanity and good will, and establish a clear understanding of what makes information reliable. Bridging knowledge and social divides is a core aspect of depolarization that universities can and should take on, for their own and their students’ benefit and to advance democracy and the public good.