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Weil Lecture Explores ‘America at a Crossroads’


May 28, 2024 | Kristen Chavez

Judy Woodruff speaks at a lectern in Hill Hall's Moeser Auditorium.

Despite spending a year of traveling the country and trying to better understand the divisions facing Americans today, Judy Woodruff hasn’t lost hope.

The seasoned journalist discussed her current reporting project, Judy Woodruff Presents: America at a Crossroads, as part of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities’ Weil Lecture on American Citizenship on March 25.

The event opened with an acknowledgement of some good-natured divisions – Woodruff is an alumna of Duke University – but soon explored political polarization that Woodruff says has increased in recent years. In over 50 years of covering politics, she noted that there are unprecedented levels of division among Americans and their communities.

Attendees in Moeser Auditorium view the Weil Lecture on American Citizenship.
It was this question of why there is so much division that prompted Woodruff to take on a new project in 2022 after stepping away from the PBS News Hour desk, where she had anchored since 2013. The first installment of America at a Crossroads highlighted a report by the Pew Research Center that found that the gaps between issues for Republicans and Democrats were significantly further apart than in the 1990s.

The differences on issues weren’t the only things that struck Woodruff. “They shared surveys that show opinions by Americans about people in the other political party have significantly darkened over the decades,” said Woodruff.

Contributing to this, Woodruff noted, was that people were more likely to weigh their own party identification against others. “People are increasingly identifying themselves and each other by what party they belong to.”

“I think the issue of polarization has become front and center in our country today,” said Woodruff during the Q&A portion of the event. As she reflected on the role of journalism, she said she was pleased that more reporters are asking deeper, challenging questions to better examine values people share, and how to keep going as a country.

“We call ourselves the eyes and ears of the American people,” said Woodruff. “And so, I think we need to make sure we know what the American people are thinking.”

Patricia Parker moderates the Q&A with Judy Woodruff.As a professor and scholar of communication, IAH Director Patricia Parker commended Woodruff’s approach in her reporting project and the conversations she has featured. “It’s up to us to engage in these kinds of approaches that create spaces for dialogue. That’s one of the takeaways that I get from what you’re doing,” said Parker.

Indeed, Parker and fellow faculty members in the communication department hosted an event for campus and community members in the weeks leading up to Woodruff’s lecture. After sharing a few of the America at a Crossroads pieces, the interactive workshop equipped attendees with critical communication tools for engaging in difficult conversations.

To Parker, having those spaces for dialogue “is foundational to having meaningful conversations.” As she reflected about the issues of debate and free space – particularly on college campuses – Parker asked Woodruff what advice she would give to students.

“I’m learning from students,” said Woodruff. “College campuses are places of leaning, of open debate. It’s the place one goes as a young person to hear new ideas, to learn different viewpoints…. We should be having these debates on college campuses; we should be discussing hard questions.”

“That’s how we learn,” said Woodruff.

The Weil Lecture on American Citizenship was established in 1915, and has been hosted by the Institute for the Arts and Humanities since 2000.

 

Watch the Weil Lecture on American Citizenship in the video below. Turn on captions by clicking on the ‘CC’ button on the lower right.

 

 

Photos and video by Jafar Fallahi.

 

 

 


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