How the Humanities Can Bridge the Political Divide

two event attendees seated at a table; one speaking Participant in the From There to Here: Immigrant Stories of Lawrence writing workshop organized by Humanities Kansas at the Lawrence Public Library, September 2018. Photo by Ann Dean.

A national initiative focuses on the essential roles of journalism and the humanities in our democracy.

In May of 2018, Bonnie O’Connor heeded a call from her local public radio station.  Listeners were being asked to participate in a media experiment co-designed by Rhode Island Public Radio (now called The Public’s Radio) and the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.  For a week, O’Connor would add more conservative content to her usual media diet of public radio and television and keep an audio diary tracking her impressions.

O’Connor jumped at the opportunity.  A retired ethnographer, she had grown increasingly dismayed and troubled by the fractious state of political discourse. “Everything seems so explosive,” she says, adding that she wanted to find a way to stop the widening chasm between herself and friends with different political views.


“The humanities can provide historical context that helps make sense of the questions that are raised when we’re thinking about the reliability of news sources."


One such friend is Dave Calabrese, her neighbor and a retired small-business owner.  Although Calabrese’s opinions about issues such as health care and immigration differ from O’Connor’s, he agrees that talking politics has become verboten.  “Everybody avoids it like the plague,” he says with matter-of-fact resignation.  “Nobody will change their mind about anything.”

Still, O’Connor was able to persuade Calabrese to balance his own “media diet” and take part in conversations with her about their opposing viewpoints in the context of (Press)ed, a six-part podcast that debuted on The Public's Radio in Providence, RI in late 2018.

(Press)ed was produced for Democracy and the Informed Citizen, a nationwide initiative to promote media literacy and bolster public trust in journalism.  The program was launched in 2017 by the Federation of State Humanities Councils (FSHC) and supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which recently renewed its commitment with a grant of $1.75 million.  The first round of grants were awarded to 49 state humanities councils, which collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and academics as well as libraries and other institutions to produce a wide and creative variety of public programs to champion the humanities as a critical tool to strengthen civil discourse and democracy.  New funding for council-member programs will be announced in December 2019.

two neighbors standing in a yardBonnie O'Connor and Dave Calabrese discussed their opposing viewpoints in the context of (Press)ed, a six-part podcast that debuted on Rhode Island's The Public's Radio. Photo courtesy of Mary Quintas.

“The humanities can provide historical context that helps make sense of the questions that are raised when we’re thinking about the reliability of news sources,” says FSHC president Esther Mackintosh.  “Really good journalism does that too, but it’s the specialty of the humanities to set these contexts and to look at the larger world, not just the immediate world.”

To gain perspective, another project in the Informed Citizen campaign focusses on the classical world. In his article for Pathways, the triannual publication of Ohio Humanities,historian Brendan McCarthy turned to the life of Cicero, the Roman statesman.  Although Cicero predates notions of #fakenews by millennia, he lived by the conviction that to properly distinguish between rumor and truth required interaction with an array of people.

“He engaged with everybody he knew, whether he agreed with them or not,” says McCarthy, an assistant professor of history and political science at Utah Valley University.  In the classical world, social networks were as critical as they are today, McCarthy adds, and exposing oneself to a diversity of viewpoints was as essential then as it is now, both to governing and to being an informed member of a democratic society. 

McCarthy’s investigation of Cicero “showed us very clearly how this notion of misinformation has been with us since the dawn of humanity,” says Patricia Williamsen, Ohio Humanities’ executive director. “This is a topic that is not going to go away, especially as we come into another election season. How do voters inform themselves? It’s incumbent on each one of us to verify our sources and to make sure we know where our information is coming from.”

Funding from Mellon allowed Ohio Humanities to experiment with new forms of media such as podcasts.  In other states, programming led to new collaborations and the engagement of new constituencies, says Mackintosh.  For example, in its considerations of immigration coverage, Humanities Kansas “formed partnerships with the bilingual media as well as the Latino Writers Collective, and they worked with several Hispanic journalism students from Seward County Community College to explore how the story of the Hispanic immigrant population is being told in Kansas.”

event facilitator standing in front of a PowerPoint projectionArtist and writer José Faus leading From There to Here: Immigrant Stories of Lawrence bilingual writing workshop organized by Humanities Kansas at the Lawrence Public Library, September 2018. Photo by Ann Dean.

Back in Rhode Island, the Council for the Humanities used a portion of its grant to acquire Hearken, software that enables a direct line of communication between citizens and news reporters.  The (Press)ed team used it to invite the public to submit questions in advance of a live town hall episode, and the software now underpins a feature of The Public’s Radio website that allows community members to send direct questions to the newsroom.

“Reporters and editors have a more immediate understanding of how people are thinking about an issue in advance of and in the process of reporting on a story,” says Elizabeth Francis, Rhode Island Council for the Humanities executive director.

The goal is “to create lasting ways for this conversation and these ways of interaction to continue,” Francis explains.  “We’re interested in sustainability.”

And what of the long-term effects of (Press)ed? The friendship between Calabrese and O’Connor survived a six-episode run.  But Calabrese remains dubious about the possibility of bridging social and political divides.  “We were friends, we’re still friends, but does it prove anything? I just don’t know,” he says.

O’Connor has a more positive take.  “It’s made me much more capable of listening to what people are saying and why they believe what they believe,” she says.  “I still don’t agree with them, but I see their pattern of reasoning.”

Mackintosh acknowledges that much of the Informed Citizen programming is preaching to the choir—people who listen to a public radio-produced podcast already tend to be progressive.  But, she adds, “You have to start somewhere.”