Citizen Literacy Revisited: Applying Third Space Thinking to the Public Square

This electoral cycle has clearly demonstrated that our republic faces severe challenges. Whether your candidate won or lost, many Americans are deeply disappointed with the flawed process that brought us to this place.

Poll after poll shows our collective disappointment with the process. Between 30% and 40% of us give failing grades to the biggest players in this theater – the parties, the pollsters and the press. To move forward and improve the processes we the citizens must insist that the party leaders and the reporters, the pollsters – and we ourselves – are obliged to do better.

As the dean of a communication and journalism school, this is especially troubling since every year I am obligated to prepare my 2,400 students to be able speak for themselves, and for the communities and causes to which they are committed. With the transition and inauguration behind us, what do we need moving forward? How do we better equip the American electorate with the skills they require to navigate into the future with a better chance for effectively shaping the American polity? How can all of us think and act more broadly with more understanding and compassion, adapting to accelerating change in a world of local and global uncertainty, stepping beyond our own insulated and isolated echo chambers of political commentary?

The answer may rest in the results of four years of research my team at the USC Annenberg School conducted with business leaders across America, seeking their views of the kinds of employees they were seeking in these times of scary market uncertainty in the digital age. They pointed to attributes rooted in highly valued communication-based ‘soft’ skills that are in high demand but in very short supply in the market place.

I believe those same basic attributes are equally beneficial in the public arena. They include:

Adaptability, or the ability to effectively problem solve and explore various alternative scenarios by drawing upon principles from multiple disciplines, including, design, technology, economics and communications;

Cultural Competency, or the ability to work inclusively and respectfully with others of various cultures and orientations, as well as different organizations, sectors and regions;

Empathy, is the ability to understand others’ priorities and perspectives by engaging in active listening and interpreting others’ viewpoints. It is the capacity to see the world through the eyes of others, especially those different from oneself.

Intellectual Curiosity, or possessing a hunger for knowledge that fuels even-higher levels of learning and performance; and

360-Degree Thinking, or the ability to take a holistic, multi-dimensional analytical approach to problem-solving.

Let’s apply these five lenses to politics and public life to develop better questions and ways of thinking about elections of the future. Let’s start with the root of inquiry, i.e. curiosity and build on it.

Intellectual Curiosity: The election results defied the predictions of most experts. I wonder what happened and why the electoral results turned out the way they did? And why did so many get it so wrong? I want to know more.

Empathy: With some of those questions answered, shouldn’t I go the next step and try to see the world through the eyes of others, to walk in their shoes? I should try to feel their pain, and understand their joys.

Cultural Competency: Now that I am curious and genuinely empathetic, I need to learn many more details about the cultural and attitudinal differences that exist in our country. This means ‘culture’ in the broadest sense – what are the values and preferences of the press, and the pollsters? And the ‘culture’ of professional politicians in Washington and in state capitals?

360-Degree Thinking: Now that I have investigated the values and preferences of the ‘cultures’ that are different from my own, how do I put all these things together to gain a complete picture of what’s at stake and a more complete understanding of what I need to do to move forward. I need to construct a more holistic and inclusive view of the entire political landscape. The 360 view must move beyond just my usual go-to sources of information that too often merely reinforce my own view of the world.

Adaptability: Now that I have learned a lot more about the world around me, what do I actually do? How can I become more adaptable in light of the many changes I see? Not just changing my understanding, but actually changing my actions to act on my new understandings. We all must be more adaptable to adjust quickly to the new emerging political environment. We need to climb out of our own personal political cocoon and engage in real conversations with those who don’t necessarily share our deeply-held opinions.

These are the obligations that we, as American citizens, should embrace so that the next elections, and other important forms of civic engagement, will better serve all citizens and generate the trust we need. They are as relevant for the public square as they are for corporate talent offices. These are the things my school and others need to teach, and all our students need to learn. These are not easy steps, but they are essential steps. Ultimately, we all live in a 360-degree ecology we call America where greater insights and understanding are now more important than ever, if America is truly to be great again.