The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday September 23rd

Column: The social and political divisions of an online education

<p>DTH Photo Illustration. President Trump signed Executive Order 13856 on Thursday, March 21, 2019 allowing the government to withhold research funding from colleges and universities that fail to protect free speech. Trump emphasized this measure as being for those "challenging rigid, far-left ideology."</p>
Buy Photos DTH Photo Illustration. Opinion staffer Layla Peykamian writes about the concerns that virtual class formats risk to increase political divides.

I love yoga and Birkenstocks. I order overpriced lattes from my favorite local cafe on the weekends — with oat milk, of course, because I’m vegan. I have strong opinions on fine art and an intense commitment to my house plants. I talk a lot about astrology, and honestly, I kind of believe in it.

Politicians don’t mention astrology or Birkenstocks in their policy proposals, nor do campaign events of any kind include yoga breaks. 

Nonetheless, I’m sure you have a pretty good idea of what political party I identify with after reading that description. You also probably have an idea of whether or not you think we would get along. 

Unlike in the 1960s, when the political landscape was focused on business regulation and taxing, our political identifications today have become increasingly synonymous with our worldview. Although party members don’t fit a single mold, personal characteristics are more indicative today of a person’s political attitudes than they were years ago. 

Now, political parties equate to our lifestyle preferences, and more importantly, our moral understandings. Now, politics is personal.

As a first-year in college, I had no choice but to meet people whose worldviews were entirely different from mine. I was exposed to people who lived in different states and different countries, and I developed a newfound respect for perspectives I didn't even know existed.

I didn’t seek these individuals out. I didn’t make a point to broaden my perspective. The fundamental community-based structure of college did the work for me, and I benefit from that work every single day.

My laptop cannot replicate that feeling.

Due to the pandemic, we face an alarmingly low degree of exposure to new perspectives. College students face this during a formative time when we should be growing our perspectives, not shrinking them. 

Weekly Zoom meetings, frequent FaceTimes and socially-distanced picnics work well enough to maintain our closest relationships. But you can’t send a Zoom link to your favorite barista. You wouldn’t FaceTime the classmate who always laughed at your jokes in class. How about the sort-of friend you always seem to pass on campus? The student who you frequently see in your favorite corner of the library? 

Even if we don’t form strong connections with these individuals, consistently seeing them in person creates a bond of familiarity and community that cannot be maintained online. 

Online learning results in less student-to-student discussion, and thus, fewer class friendships. Friendships and acquaintances formed via Zoom and GroupMe are more difficult and less personal. Therefore, we are less likely to reach out to our classmates, and we're more selective when we do reach out. That selectivity inevitably leads to gravitating toward the people that seem to think, look or act like you. And they probably vote like you, too. 

It makes sense to form friendships with people who are like you. It makes sense, given our current political climate, that the majority of our friends may share our political beliefs. But being surrounded only by our "in-groups" results in the antagonization of those who aren’t a part of them. 

We all have distinct understandings of the world, and our understandings may not be inherently compatible. But villainizing half of our country — or reducing them to caricatures — is not a solution to our problems. 

So I won’t write off the student who mentioned their love of country music or their pickup truck, assuming we’re fundamentally doomed to never agree on anything of more substantial weight. 

Maybe I’ll send them a GroupMe message instead, asking which artist they recommend I check out first.

opinion@dailytarheel.com

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