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Students attend class at Mason Honors College

Robinson Professor Steve Pearlstein's class pairs students with people outside the university who do not necessarily share their political views. He wants them to understand the reasons why people think the way they do.

Honors Class Is More Than Politics as Usual

Sarah Shay didn’t know what to expect when she spoke to her research subject, a farmer in Virginia’s Dinwiddie County.

The sophomore knew her professor, Steven Pearlstein, had paired her with someone who did not share her liberal political views. Given the charged atmosphere of the presidential campaign, Shay worried about the tone their weekly conversations would take.

“But it’s been amazing,” she says. “He has been extremely respectful — very open, very polite. When we do disagree, we do so respectfully. We’ll even laugh about it.”

That’s the kind of interaction Pearlstein wants in his Honors 131 class, Contemporary Society in Multiple Perspectives: The 2016 Presidential Campaign.

“One of the big problems in politics is people think the people they don’t agree with are stupid or venal,” says Pearlstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning business and economics writer at the Washington Post and Robinson Professor of Public Affairs at Mason. “There are a lot of people you disagree with who aren’t stupid and venal, and they have real reasons for the way they think.”

The class of 24 students is taking a deep dive into the U.S. political system, reading about how campaigns work, discussing political behaviors, and learning to distinguish between what Pearlstein called the noise and actual signals in the cacophony of political conversation.

“If we can understand each other better, we would have better politics.”

— Robinson Professor Steven Pearlstein

Pearlstein spent two weeks in August recruiting his students’ subjects, including a union leader, a corporate executive, a real estate developer, a Tea Party activist, a newspaper executive, a gun club member, and a retired police chief. The objective is to discover the reasons for their political viewpoints. Pairing students and subjects of opposite views gets both sides out of their echo chambers.

“In the Honors College, we have this mantra of multiple perspectives, broadening our horizons,” says Evan Cypher, a fiscally conservative, socially liberal sophomore economics major paired with a Hillary Clinton-supporting soccer mom.

“This is the first time we’ve actually experienced that firsthand. It’s not multiple perspectives within a small, liberal arts college classroom. We’re reaching out for all different kinds of perspectives.”