Daughter-Father Team Teaches Class on Bridging Political, Generational Divide

With the 2018 midterm elections swiftly approaching on Nov. 6, University of Pittsburgh faculty member Kris Kanthak is trying to make discussing politics a little easier to navigate — with the help of someone familiar.

Kanthak is partnering with her father, Dave Kanthak, a retired school administrator, to teach a class called Talking Politics Across Generations. Kris Kanthak is an associate professor of political science in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and an expert in American politics.

“If there’s a way to talk about politics around the Thanksgiving table that’s civil, that seems to be something that we should explore,” she said.

The students in the course belong to an age group she said she doesn’t generally have in her classes: They are age 50 and older.

Housed in the College of General Studies, Pitt’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offers non-credit classes such as Kanthak’s specifically for students in that age group year-round.

By sharing data about partisanship and ideology, among other topics, Kanthak hopes that the people enrolled in the class will better understand how politics operate and, perhaps more importantly, how others, especially members of other generations, develop their viewpoints.

“I think one of the things that is special about when families argue about politics is that no matter how mean and nasty politics in the real world gets, you’re talking with someone you love and respect,” she said.

“To me, given how divided the country is right now, it seemed like a good time to address the issue of how people who see things differently and think about things differently can actually talk about politics without ripping each other’s heads off,” she said.

If there’s a way to talk about politics around the Thanksgiving table that’s civil, that seems to be something that we should explore.

Kris Kanthak, associate professor of political science in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

During one class session, Kanthak spoke on the topic of political polarization and power of group identities. Those who share a person’s identity are the so-called “good guys,” while those who do not are seen as the “bad guys,” she said.

A man seated near the front asked whether Kanthak thought that the feeling of having to belong to a group is innate.

Membership in a group makes people feel safe, Kanthak said, but moving beyond these conceptions of “good guys” and “bad guys” is critical to a more civil political discourse.

“It has to be about understanding the other person and not about defeating them,” she said.

Dave Kanthak agreed. “You could be totally opposite. You should be able to talk about it and not hate the other person,” he said.

Not only is this the first teaching collaboration between Kanthak and her father, this is his first class in about 30 years.

During his career, Dave Kanthak worked at the U.S. Department of Education for a six-year span during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.

Kris Kanthak’s introduction to teaching and politics was at an early age; her parents were educators and her family, especially her maternal grandparents, supported discussion of political topics.

She recalled talking to her grandparents when she was in kindergarten about an upcoming mock political convention at school where the students were going to identify as “elephants” or “donkeys.”

“My grandfather says to this little 6-year-old girl, ‘Well, you’re a donkey! You know you’re a donkey, right?’ I didn’t even know what that meant, but I thought, ‘Okay. I guess I must be a donkey!’” she said.

She added, “I think that was the first time I realized that I had a very political family.”

Kris Kanthak’s Tips for Civil Political Discourse

  • Facts matter. Unsourced internet memes are probably false. If you don’t know the source of a claim, don’t share it on social media.
  • Assume people are doing their best. This one is hard because sometimes, someone’s best is really, really bad. But assuming they are doing their best is good for you, even if you think they don’t happen to deserve the benefit of the doubt.
  • Don’t rely on caricatures of the “other side.” Talk less. Listen more. The goal is not to win. It is to understand.
  • Don’t give up talking about politics with people with whom you disagree, especially when they are people you love. That’s the only way to understand each other. But there is nothing wrong with taking a break every now and then.