Teaching Across the Divide

The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, including an undergraduate course, encourages civil discourse during a time of deep polarization

Unity Project

From the Civil War to the battle over civil rights, the United States has seen levels of conflict in the past that have threatened to tear the country apart. But watching the violent attack on the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, Professor of Political Science John Geer felt that he was witnessing a different kind of political fracturing. The two political parties weren’t disagreeing on matters of policy, but rather disputing the basic facts of whether Joe Biden had won the presidency.

“You can have disagreements, but now we’re disagreeing on what is reality,” said Geer, who is also the Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science. “The core problem facing the country today isn’t polarization per se. It’s that we are ignoring evidence and making decisions purely based on ideology.”

That realization led to the development of an undergraduate course at Vanderbilt, co-taught by Geer, historian Jon Meacham and international mediator Samar Ali, BS’03, JD’06. The course, Unity and American Democracy, generated excitement among students ahead of its launch in fall 2021, as hundreds looked to enroll, drawn not just by the reputation of the faculty instructors or the possibility of well-known guest speakers but by the high stakes facing all American citizens. The class asks whether common ground is even possible amid the toxic discourse on both sides of the political spectrum—and what that ultimately means for the future of our democracy.

The course is part of a broader initiative called the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, which launched in January 2021. Co-chaired by Meacham, Ali and former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, and managed by Geer, the project holds events, conducts research, and publishes articles from an array of thinkers in an effort to cut through political rhetoric with facts and evidence.

Vanderbilt is uniquely suited to hold those conversations, Geer said. Not only was the university founded after the Civil War to heal the wounds between North and South, but also the school’s location in “a blue bubble in the red sea of Tennessee” puts it symbolically in the middle of the country’s divides. “Our DNA as a university is very much about unity,” he said.

Learn more about the Unity and American Democracy course.