By Fawn Chapel, Student to Student Program Director
I watch as a student walks up to Jon, one of our Student to Student (STS) participants, after a presentation and engages in a conversation. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but they’re chatting and smiling. I hear some laughter. Afterwards, I ask Jon what they talked about. He tells me that the student plays soccer, as does he. Jon had explained his soccer-playing in his introduction when he shared his interests and activities with the class. The two teens compared notes about playing against a particular team.
At the end of most STS presentations, classroom students approach our Jewish participants to chat, so often about what they may have in common or to ask questions they hadn’t had a chance to ask during the class period. Our participants speak of the connections they feel they made during their presentations. It feels like magic to this observer.
That magic that I sense validates “contact hypothesis,” which was formulated in the 1950’s by Gordon Allport (many of us know him from our Psych 101 classes) and later revised by Thomas Pettigrew, a research psychologist at the University of California. The theory explains that contact between two groups can promote acceptance and combat bigotry. Allport felt that certain conditions (e.g., equal status among groups and common goals) were required for this to happen, however Pettigrew deduced that the specific conditions Allport and others cited are not necessary to fight prejudice. After conducting a meta-analysis of 500 studies, he concluded that all that’s needed for greater acceptance between groups is actual contact (except in the most hostile situations). His analysis found that contact works not cognitively, but on an emotional basis. He arrived at the conclusion that with contact, “your stereotypes about the other group don’t necessarily change, but you grow to like them anyway.” And, indeed, this is what we see at our STS presentations and what our surveys have confirmed, though in fact, we know that stereotypes about Jews are dispelled by our participants.
Recently, Yair Rosenberg, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, who covers the intersection of religion, politics, and culture, gave Student to Student a shout-out in a podcast when discussing contact hypothesis and proactive efforts to fight antisemitism (at 1:36):
With their efforts, our Student to Student participants prove the validity of contact hypothesis. Through the magic of their presentations, students like Jon are changing the world one classroom at a time.