Mason brings together interdisciplinary panels to work through American polarization

by Anne Reynolds

Mason brings together interdisciplinary panels to work through American polarization


It is a familiar word these days, often used to describe the state of American society. Defined as a division between two sharply distinct opposites, the term frequently arises now in the context of politics and popular opinions on a host of societal topics.  

While the effects of this polarization are very much in the news, there seems to be much less agreement about its origins. At Mason, a group of scholars will gather to think through the histories and causes of the entrenched positions that are dividing us, by considering the many complicated factors that underlie them.  

Sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the Center for Humanities Research, the symposium, Thinking through American Polarization, introduces two sets of panels that consider American division through distinct disciplinary lenses. 

Peter Stearns, professor of history and Mason’s Provost Emeritus, worked with Alison Landsberg, history professor and director of the Center for Humanities Research, to shape the event. "The symposium is based on the belief that universities can help address the current crisis by getting beyond the attack mode, to discuss and debate the more fundamental factors involved in the nation's divide -- and ultimately, perhaps, how these factors might be addressed,” said Stearns. 

The first panel discussion will be moderated by Landsberg. It welcomes faculty members from around the country whose scholarship centers on religion, race, history, and media: 

  • Daniel Rodgers, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Emeritus, Princeton University 
  • Julius Fleming, associate professor of English and director of English honors, University of Maryland, College Park 
  • Allyson Shortle, associate professor of political science, University of Oklahoma 
  • David Rand, Erwin H. Schell Professor, and professor of management science and brain and cognitive sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Stearns will then moderate a panel of faculty members who represent disciplines among Mason’s colleges and schools: 

  • Supriya Baily, professor of education in the College of Education and Human Development 
  • Stefan Wheelock, associate professor in the Department of English, College of Humanities and Social Sciences 
  • David Bernstein, University Professor and executive director of the Liberty & Law Center, Antonin Scalia Law School 
  • Richard Rubenstein, University Professor, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.  

“It’s important that we drew people from different corners of the university,” said Catherine Olien, associate director of the Center for Humanities Research. “We hope to represent a multitude of viewpoints.”  

Through this interdisciplinary approach, the symposium seeks to reach an understanding of the causes of polarization, consider it in a context of historical divisions in American society, and look for ways to move beyond it.  

"This is a chance for us to come together to discuss these important themes and ideas,” added Olien. "Not only how we’ve gotten where we are in terms of polarization and division in politics and culture, but also what can we do to overcome that, how can we come back together?” 

The Symposium: Thinking through American Polarization will take place on November 18, 1 to 5 pm, in-person in 1201 Merten Hall, or virtually.