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UNLV Class Offers Historical Context To Upcoming Presidential Debates

Workers install debate banners at UNLV.

Workers install debate banners at UNLV.

UNLV is hosting the third and final presidential debate next month.

It's an opportunity for the university to use the major event as a teachable moment– a way to tie in lessons and classes to something happening on campus.

The school's history department has created a class this semester where 10 – yes, 10 – different professors are teaching students about the debate in 10 different historic contexts.

The class – The News in Historical Perspective: Issues Facing the 2016 Presidential Candidates – starts this semester. The topics include personal appearance, climate change and the environment and foreigners and foreign affairs.

“’We tried to provide a spectrum of subjects that we thought that the students would be involved,” said UNLV history professor Cian McMahon.

He said using historical context for some of the issues in this presidential debate can give students and the general public a better understanding of everything from immigration policy to clothing choices.

 “This course is an opportunity for us to slow down and to try to understand some of the deeper background of the issues at hand,” he said.

For example, McMahon will be teaching the course about foreign affairs with a particular emphasis on the ban of Chinese immigrants in the 1880s and its similarities to Donald Trump's call to ban all Muslim immigrants

“My goal is to encourage conversation not to put people in a box tell them what’s right and wrong,” he said, “Let’s critically analysis the conversations that are going on in the debate in the Thomas & Mack Center that night.”

McMahon and his colleagues hope to break people from the "competiting monolog" model and into the idea of open discussion. They also want to students to dig deeper after the course is over. 

“I hope, we hope, this course will enable students to go out and learn more on their own,” he said,  “That’s what we really want to do is send out informed citizens.”


Cian McMahon, UNLV history professor

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Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)