The Role of Civil Discourse in Higher Education
If you’re like me, you shake your head almost daily at the increasing number of instances of a lack of civil discourse on college campuses. Whether it’s preventing speakers from sharing their views, shouting them down to prevent others from hearing those views, or escaping to a safe place on campus, an important question today is whether civil discourse should be taught. The fact that I have to address this issue saddens me because it means a problem has arisen that threatens the very basis of free speech on college campuses and brings into question the right of speakers to share their sometimes-divergent views in a non-threatening environment.
Let’s assume civil discourse should be taught. What should be the components of such a course? I recently read an interesting book on this topic by the Association of American Colleges and Universities: A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. The book was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education to focus on civil discourse and the crucial need for our institutions of higher learning to commit strongly to its survival.
First things first. What is civil discourse? A Crucible defines it in terms of characteristic behaviors of:
- Undertaking a serious exchange of views;
- Focusing on the issues rather than on the individual(s) espousing them.
- Defending interpretations using verified information;
- Thoughtfully listening to what others say;
- Seeking the sources of disagreements and points of common purpose;
- Embodying open-mindedness and a willingness to change one’s mind;
- Willingness to compromise;
- Treating the ideas of others with respect;
- Avoiding violence (physical, emotional, and verbal).
Successfully engaging in civil discourse requires learning important skills of critical thinking including:
- Critical inquiry
- Analysis and reasoning
- Information retrieval and evaluation
- Effective written communication
- Effective oral communication
- Listening skills
- An understanding of one’s perspectives and their limitations
- The ability to interact constructively with a diverse group of individuals holding conflicting views.
The key values of civil discourse are: respect, empathy and civility. It also entails being open to alternative points of views and fair-mindedness. An overarching dimension is to be committed to responsible behavior. Interestingly, these are characteristic behaviors of an ethical person. So, civil discourse and ethics go hand in hand.
What is the best way to add civil discourse to a college curriculum? First, there needs to be a commitment by the administration and the faculty to the notion that civil discourse should be at the heart of undergraduate education and taught throughout the curriculum, not just in one course. By relegating it to one course, the message sent to students is civil discourse is narrow in scope whereas it should be relevant to all learning environments. By including civil discourse in virtually all courses, students learn its importance to the study of humanities, social sciences, behavioral sciences and so on. It even applies to teaching sportsmanship and situations such as that of Colin Kaepernick.
It's also important for faculty to model civil discourse in their teaching, discussions with students, and how they treat divergent points of view. Indeed, students should be encouraged to express their point of view without fear of derision or reprisals.
The best way to teach civil discourse is through oral communications, written communications, and group projects including meaningful debate on issues important in each academic area. For example, I have taught ethics to business students for many years and engage them in debate of the role of capitalism in a moral society. You can imagine how heated the debate got during the “occupy” days.
Finally, I find university-wide programs on civil discourse, such as requiring students to attend one seminar each year, to be largely a waste of time. Moreover, I fear some universities will appoint a Director of Civil Discourse or Civility or whatever you choose to call it. We don’t need another dedicated program that siphons off needed resources that can better be used by offering more sections to students and hiring more lecturers to facilitate the graduation process.