Take a break from freaking out about the election and listen to this NPR audio clip about Whitman College’s Semester in the West program. It’s a biennial, semester-long environmental studies field course, with a heavy emphasis on public lands issues. If you have any passion about environmental issues, traveling, and/or camping, I guarantee this will make you want to go back to school.

(Grist featured Phil Brick, the professor in the story, as an InterActivist back in October 2005.)

I myself am an alumni of the program, and I’d say the audio clip is quite well done. It provides a good snapshot of what life is like during the semester and the kind of intellectual challenges students confront. As the narrator explains, students are “put face to face with people on all sides of complex issues. Students ask their own questions, and draw their own conclusions.”

Meeting people in their own context and discussing their viewpoints respectfully tends to de-polarize an issue. It’s easy to think of cattle grazing abstractly as a destructive activity when you’re reading a flyer from a conservation group, and objectify the people who do it as ignorant of the harm they cause the environment. But try this: Sit in a rancher’s living room, fresh in from a tour of the acreage, eat homemade cinnamon rolls, and discuss their perspective on the issue. Listen to them talk about their lifestyle, the struggles they face, and how much they love the land, and you’ll probably find it difficult to keep thinking they’re completely wrong. Most likely you won’t have a complete reversal on cattle grazing, but you may start thinking in terms of changing the system, rather than railing against it.

The result of such experiences, in my view, is an education rich in diverse perspectives, passion bred through personal experience, and the notion that true progress manifests not through forcing your will upon “the other side” but by collaborating with it and finding common ground. The slogan for Semester in the West the year I participated, which we all thought would make an excellent bumper sticker, was “Hippies and Rednecks, Unite!” (inspired by a conversation with the folks at High Country News)

In this age of extreme polarization and partisan one-upmanship, the world needs more people who approach topics expecting to find shades of gray rather than black and white. True citizens are those willing to challenge their own assumptions in the effort to build and strengthen community.

Everyone has a story and a context. Politics plays off of these contexts, for better or worse. Going to the polls is often an act of partisanship, and if we want to effect real change, we’ll have to find more ways to move beyond that and engage people’s contexts, direct and unfiltered.