It’s not everyday that Penn President Amy Gutmann sits down with three of Penn’s leading professors and two of America’s most influential political experts.
Tuesday, however, Gutmann moderated the annual Silfen University Forum, which aims to discuss timely questions of national and global importance. This year’s forum centered around the state of public debate in the United States and how polarizing rhetoric can affect politics and the media.
Gutmann was joined by Political Science professor John DiIulio, Annenberg professor and political communications expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Anthropology and Communications professor John Jackson, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities Jim Leach and NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell.
The panel discussed rampant polarization in American politics and inadequate representation of the public in Washington.
Mitchell noted when she began in broadcast journalism there were only three main news outlets, but now with cable programming and the Internet, accountability is obscured and “everyone can find their own version of truth.”
She commented that because of the rapidness of news, “no one spends the time to absorb or contemplate the information.”
The panel connected this idea to the Internet, as Jackson recounted his personal experience writing a blog and said people’s “lower selves come out” under the cloak of virtual anonymity.
“Let’s be committed to proactive hearing,” putting an emphasis on dialogue rather than on combat, Jackson said.The panelists, however, said they do not see the current environment lasting.
While Americans take democracy for granted, “the great thing about democracy is that it can correct itself. Just because it is like it is now doesn’t mean it can’t change,” Gutmann said.
DiIulio was similarly optimistic. “Kids are repelled by the polarization. They know no other reality, and they see it for what it is.” He added he’s hopeful the volunteerism and desire to engage in dialogue at Penn are inspiring mature and open-minded involvement in both civics and government.
“This is our generation, and we have the tools to take control of the public discourse,” said College senior Julia Ritchie, who attended the forum. “I really feel a connection to the idea of volunteerism here at Penn. It is that connection which can be the basis for compelling us to bring both sides to the table.”
Espousing further hope for the future, Gutmann said, “We are fostering graduates who demand more and better democracy.”
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