In thirty seconds, what makes America great to you? What makes America not so great? Alongside my peers, I asked this question to hundreds of GenZers from across the country and gathered responses from Idaho, Virginia, Oregon, New York, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Indiana, Colorado, California, and Hawaii. We watched every single video and coded the videos into categories; opportunity, freedom, education and diversity emerged as themes for greatness, and racism, discrimination, inequality as well as a whole host of various other grievances as not-so-great.
From this, we wanted to engage in politically charged, challenging discussions with other students, and visited students from Oregon City High School, bringing along a recording crew from Oregon Public Broadcasting (our local public radio station affiliated with NPR). Coming from a largely liberal, Portland-based, progressive, college-preparatory school, I was nervous and curious about what my counterparts from rural, Oregon City who attended public school would believe. Yet in my hour sitting at Oregon City yielded pretty much nothing. The microphones, contrived small-talk, dinner-table manners and subtle differences in clothing, speech, and body language resulted in awkward silence only to be broken by universally accepted statements. Perhaps if we had spoken in smaller groups, been more warmed up, or felt more comfortable in the physical space things would have felt less fake, but it is hard to engage with others. Our brains are wired for confirmation bias, such that everything that goes into our brains is processed to help bolster our understanding of the world from our prior experiences, knowledge and opinions. Especially in engaging with young people, I often find myself wading through misinformation and tenuous claims by my peers, then relegating other opinions into uninformed, unintelligent, or simply wrong.
While most of us agreed that opportunity, freedom, education and diversity make America great, the broadness in scope diminishes its practical application and manifestation in daily life. While I certainly believe in meritocracy, I also am keenly aware of the institutionalized barriers that keep certain racial minorities, genders, and socio-economic classes perpetually marginalized whereas other GenZers believe wholeheartedly in the American Dream, no questions asked. Yet the nuances of this discussion are tricky, sensitive, and quite frankly hard to delve into, especially with a stranger. While many bloggers, politicians, and educators believe that my generation can center politics and bridge the ideological divides between those who believe in liberty and those who believe in justice, I am not so sure.
Growing up as the Internet exploded, polarized politics espoused by non-traditional media sites like Breitbart, have disposed us towards a hypercritical lens. Judgments of not only our politicians, but our political counterparts, rivals, and even facts have led to a generation of unbelievers. While it sounds cool and sexy to ‘bridge the political chasm’ actually doing it, and what is being modeled for GenZ in the Trump Administration, is not that.
Take the recent healthcare bill championed by Speaker Ryan. I would say, most Americans believe that healthy citizens lead to productive, positive society; yet, who should be healthy, how we should ensure people are healthy, and what we’re willing to do to reach those ends is incredibly contested. But rather than work to create discussions in communities, citizens shook their heads after watching the nightly news, and politicians toed party and caucus lines. While perhaps Democrats hail this as a success, or the Freedom Caucus feels empowered by their influence in the Swamp, it was the American people who lost out on improvements to healthcare infrastructure. And then the news cycle continued to spin, and conjecture about the upcoming budget approval in April. Did we solve the healthcare crisis in the U.S.? Do we know what the future of healthy citizens in this country is?
For us to be able to have frank conversations we must enhance education of civics, soft skills like compassionate listening and empathy, and constructive dissent. Perhaps if everyone had the same facts and same vision for a great America we could work together to make that dream a reality. Perhaps if we could listen to understand rather than spin as our own, we could really understand the experience and opinion of others. And perhaps if we knew how to respond respectfully and constructively rather than just shutting down, we could go somewhere.