OHIO — All this week, we’ve brought you stories about talking politics across Ohio through the efforts of Braver Angels. 

What You Need To Know

  • Debating issues can often devolve into shouting and personal attacks

  • Students at University of Cincinnati agreed to discuss student loan forgiveness using Braver Angels rules

  • The sides didn't change their stances, but they kept it civil due to the Braver Angels format

In this story, we show you some of what Braver Angels discussions look like. We asked student volunteers from the University of Cincinnati and their professor and Braver Angels member, Professor Eugene Rutz, to discuss four hot topics using Braver Angels rules. 

These rules include: 1) listening first, then speak, 2) don’t try to change the other person’s mind, and 3) don’t assume group members all think the same.

We put students in red and blue teams. This example focuses on the issue of government student loan forgiveness. Professor Rutz opened the debate by addressing the “blue” team: “You’re probably very aware, being college students, that President Biden has enacted student loan forgiveness, a policy worth thousands of dollars for current borrowers. So, for the blue team, why do you think this is a good idea?”

“Blue” team member MacKenzie Collett, part of UC’s class of 2024, went first: “Student loans started as a way to help lower- and middle-income Americans obtain an education. But over the years, it’s quickly morphed into a way of really keeping them from investing in other things, like putting down-payments on cars and houses, saving for their kids’ college. Specifically for female and minority individuals. Women borrow more for college than men, and minority individuals borrow more for college than white individuals. And I think that’s something that’s important. Equity in education. And every founder of our nation can be quoted somewhere saying something about the value of education, the importance of education. And while they may not have meant to include women and minorities and that we, the people we certainly are included, would be the people now. And we deserve equal access to education.”

It was then time for “red” team member Jaden Walton, part of UC’s class of 2025, to respond with his perspective on education and finances: “I agree with your point with equal access to education and coming off of personal testimony, I actually grew up very poor and I am a recipient of the Pell Grant. And so I go through these struggles where I have had to get student loans, etc., to pay for my own schooling. However, now I am purchasing a house, a property, so I was able to work my way up and work side jobs, work on weekends, etc. to work my way up there.”

“Blue” team member Tanmay Srivastava, from UC’s class of 2025, showed respect to Walton’s experience, while holding a different view: “I respect and really admire your background and how you grew up in such an environment and building up to that. But there are a lot of students in post-graduate education that want to go start small businesses and promote jobs and growth. A lot of them, because of loans, are not able to start their businesses.”

At this point, you might be thinking, “I have several good points to make in this conversation, and the speakers aren’t using them!” That’s true of a lot of our political talks. Remember, the students and Professor Rutz model a Braver Angels style discussion. The primary goal is to listen to understand the other side. Once we listen more, and show that respect, we’re in a better position to share our ideas on issues like student loan forgiveness.

“Red” team member Alyssa Baker, of UC’s class of 2025, brought a new perspective to the discussion: “It would cost the government over $400 billion to cover these costs. I willingly took out student loans. I personally do not believe that someone else should have to pay for my student loan that I was not forced to get.”

This prompted Collett to acknowledge the “red” team’s experiences, while presenting her own vantage point on student loans: “Well, it’s great that you guys feel that it was a choice you willingly made. For a lot of people, it’s not a willing choice. It’s a double-edged sword between being able to get an education, go into the career they want to pursue, make a good life for themselves and, frankly, nothing. And so, while it’s great that you feel like that was a willing choice, for a lot of people it’s not a willing choice. It’s something they have to do that or they cannot pursue an education. And the reason that this is important is equity. While there are certainly people who may not need it, and that’s amazing. That’s very fortunate that you’ve been able to work your way up. There are a lot of people who do. And just because someone doesn’t have that financial background doesn’t mean they should be forbidden from getting an education.”

Baker acknowledged Collett’s point, but held to her concerns: “It is a matter of looking at like, where does it stop? Where, where is this precedent going to lead in the future? It’s just, it’s going to keep reflecting upon, you know, this free money that’s coming up where nothing is really free. As I think we’ve all learned.”

It was then time for Professor Rutz to draw the session to a close: “I want to thank you all again for taking your time and being willing to put yourself out there and share your views on some difficult topics. So congratulations to you all.”

You might see some of your views reflected in this debate. You may also think one speaker was “better” than another. Rather than a flaw of the exercise, however, the Braver Angels debate style in this student loan conversation reflects how we can have these discussions in real life. In the end, no one had their minds changed. But all four team members listened to each other give their heartfelt perspectives with judging, name calling, or shouting. This way of discussing politics may not be the norm, but it might be a “braver” style of hearing and learning from each other on the nation’s most pressing issues.