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Last week the Wall Street Journal published an article on the state of civil discourse in the universities. I was excited to see the piece since the rancor, polarization, and hatred at the university level has been a great concern for me.
I decided to review the colleges with programs on civil discourse that were cited in the piece, most of them quite new. Unfortunately, I discovered that many didn’t meet my expectations for changing the college environment and educating students. In fact, it’s possible that college campuses are getting worse:
In a 2017 survey of more than 3,000 college students from Gallup Inc. and the Knight Foundation, 61% said the climate on their campus stifled certain speech that might be viewed as offensive, up from 54% the prior year. They reported feeling that social-media dialogue was less civil than a year earlier, and that people blocked out views they disagreed with. Pew found in 2016 that 52% of Republicans said Democrats were more closed-minded than other Americans, while 70% of Democrats said the same about Republicans.
Setting the numbers aside, though, doesn’t create much optimism. Although several universities were referenced in the WSJ article as starting or having civil discourse agendas, most of them provided a handful of courses that had that curriculum, but it was unclear whether students would be influenced by only an intellectual approach, particularly with teachers who weren’t open-minded. I also found that several colleges spoke of the importance of civil discourse, but were not starting programs to encourage that change. Strangely enough, some schools encouraged discussions on topics that were a high priority to students on the Left, but not to students on the right; Carleton College in Minnesota had a dozen freshmen living together to study topics such as “race and income inequality.”
Some programs are beginning in fits and starts:
At Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., a 12-person working group on civil discourse found itself embroiled in controversy last winter. Philosophy professor Jennifer McErlean withdrew from the team, calling the leaders of conservative campus groups “evil” for organizing an event featuring Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone and Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe.
Interestingly, Professor McErlean is a big proponent of diversity—just not in discourse.
There are some fine organizations who are offering training in civil discourse, and offer hopeful signs. One is Heterodox Academy founded by Jonathan Haidt:
No matter their background or political ideology, all members of Heterodox Academy have endorsed this statement: ‘I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic ﬁelds and universities currently lack sufﬁcient viewpoint diversity—particularly political diversity. I will support viewpoint diversity in my academic field, my university, my department, and my classroom.’ Today, Heterodox Academy consists of more than 1,800 professors and graduate student affiliates.
Another organization that is making headway is BridgesUSA. I was encouraged when I saw the list of speakers at a Summit they sponsored and both Jeff Flake and Ben Shapiro were presenters.
But the most encouraging program I found is at Princeton University, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, founded by Robert George. This program’s mission includes the following:
Founded in the summer of 2000, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions in the Department of Politics at Princeton University is dedicated to exploring enduring questions of American constitutional law and Western political thought. The Program is also devoted to examining the application of basic legal and ethical principles to contemporary problems.
Not only are they teaching the foundations of our country, but they are telling their students the following:
Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions—including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.
Professor George was invited to speak about his program at the UNC Board of Governors and he explained further:
‘We don’t want education to degenerate into indoctrination. Rather, we want to equip and empower our students to think deeply, critically, and for themselves.’ George showed the board members his syllabus for a class on civil liberties that had readings from scholars with diverse perspectives on controversial issues. He also encourages his students to take courses with a liberal professor at Princeton whom he considers to be his polar opposite. ‘We are not interested in creating a conservative safe space or a playground for conservatives.’
Unfortunately, his message didn’t get through to everyone:
Steve Leonard, a political science professor at UNC, said there was nothing revelatory in George’s remarks. ‘That talk could have been delivered by any number of UNC faculty. It’s disappointing, and to some extent, insulting, that the Board of Governors is so unaware of that fact that they would invite someone from the outside to do what a faculty member here in North Carolina could have done.’ Leonard said good faculty everywhere take themselves seriously and provide differing viewpoints in their classrooms.
Ah, that it were so.
Still, there is movement in the efforts toward civil discourse. Some universities will treat it as the latest flavor of the month; others will think that it is another way to promote the agenda of the Left. But there may be enough energy to begin turning the ship around in the direction of civil discourse.
We must be persistent and determined enough to make that happen.