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Teaching the “Political Animals” of Contemporary America: Addressing Real-Time Inequality and Exclusion in the Classroom

Jessica Blum-Sorensen and Nathan Dennis

University of San Francisco

How can we address the visceral flaws of our nation in an empowering way? In Fall 2020, against the backdrop of the U.S. general election, we co-taught a seminar on the evolution of democracy through its historical, philosophical, and visual traditions, focusing on issues of in-and exclusivity. In this talk, we discuss the perils of deconstructing democracy’s origins as a path to political engagement.

Several big questions inform the seminar’s goal of using connections with the past to elucidate political and social issues of the present. First, we look at how the Greeks, Romans, and Founding Fathers defined democracy through the negative, i.e., by developing concepts of the “other” as moral justification for constructing a particular version of “democracy” as a superior form of government—a discourse that, in the modern era, manifests in such practices as redistricting, gerrymandering, and census data.

A second core theme, which builds on the concept of “othering,” looks at the ways in which rhetorics of marginalization extends to all angles of life, from the personal (what makes a citizen, structured through the spaces and activities of daily life; who gets to participate; what they look like; how they spend their time), to the community (why democracy originates in a particular time and place), including how others are assimilated—or not—into the social and political fabric. This policing of bodies social and physical shapes American democracy as the exclusive, masculine, wealthy sphere that Greece and Rome also represented, but it also highlights the ways in which a significant population of the U.S. feels marginalized and unsupported by dismissive “bicoastal” voices.

Finally, we explore how individuals both ancient and modern use the nebulous rhetoric of social values to present themselves as the democratic ideal. The worlds of Greece and Rome were built on rhetorics of the ideal citizen—white, male, able-bodied, wealthy, and nativeborn—and on the exclusion of the other, constructed through gender, ethnicity, and aesthetic values.

These factors bring the democratic process into our students’ lived daily experience. As they move through the physical landscape of San Francisco, they encounter the tacit barriers and privileges that shape their own participation in the democratic process. Central to our exploration, therefore, is the ability to create a classroom environment that not only confronts but also seeks to elucidate the “difficult topics” of the inherent inequalities that our students face every day. Both the victims and the beneficiaries of the American “myth of meritocracy”—a direct inheritance from the origin stories of ancient democracies—our students venture into territory that, by definition, makes the political deeply personal.

As we head toward the 2020 elections amidst the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, never have the issues of civic engagement and civil discourse been more important. In this talk, we will reflect on the perils and potential of deconstructing democracy’s foundation myths as a means to build a better future through civil civic discourse.

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Difficult Topics in the Classroom

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