Just weeks into a new presidency feels like a new beginning, and for many, a sense of moving on. However, this week we reflect on the work that still needs to be done with our guest, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois, Ilana Redstone. Redstone, who has been teaching social statistics since 2005, talks to Xander about What We Don't Know about political polarization and the necessity of teaching people how to communicate through divisive times.
A bridge of communication is essential to Redstone. Whether you call it polarization, "viewpoint diversity," or "ideological differences," none are terms she favors. In Ilana’s experience, the avoidance of talking politics begins with people being hung up on the word "political". Redstone doesn't focus on voting or party allegiance. "My concern has been how we communicate with each other about social problems, about inequality, about all of these things that are concerning.", Redstone explains. "When you label it as a political problem, it specifies a certain set of prescriptive remedies that are necessarily going to get to the core of the issues."
While there are many ways to break down the sources of the division, leading to communication breakdown, polarization tends to start with the youth. This is why changing higher education standards is very important to Redstone. Professor Redstone points to a few primary discussion points that she brings to her students; Identity and Fairness.
In terms of "identity," race is the most prevalent, which is why she believes the teaching of Critical Race Theory in universities needs to be reformed. She challenges her students to move beyond the "color-blind" thinking, which isn't helpful. "We can do better." She explains, "My position has never been that we should not be teaching it; I think it should be part of what we're teaching and what we talk about in the classroom. It shouldn't be the only thing, the only perspective, it's just a theory."
With the muckiness of race conversations comes the confusion of fairness. Redstone gives an example of race-based admissions. She asks students, 'Is it fair that everyone gets into school based on their merit?'. Everyone says yes, but when she adds, "Is it fair that these traditionally underprivileged groups, those marginalized, disadvantaged groups; They have not had the same opportunities. Is it fair that they are then evaluated by the same yardstick?"
Redstone doesn't proclaim to have the answers but aims to have the hard discussions surrounding affirmative action, poverty, and politics in her classes, particularly the one entitled 'Bigots and Snowflakes', which is in its third semester. "I would love to really be able to engage more both inside and outside of academia with what I am doing.", says Redstone. She is looking to expand outside of the classroom by continuing her online videos that share her classroom topics and sociology.
While bridging viewpoints within higher learning is vital to Ilana, she also works with corporations and private entities. Her goal is to build an institution for critical thinking to answer the question, "How are we teaching students and nonstudents to think about the world?" Redstone says. Overall we are a society that agrees on injustices, but in terms of communication, Redstone says, "I think we can do a lot better than we're doing. This is about solving problems, this is about how we talk about problems that we all care about; poverty, inequality, discrimination, disparities. How we have those conversations; that's my focus."