How Schools Can Contribute to Much Needed Civil Discourse in Society

Regardless of where you fit on the political or ideological spectrum, it is hard to disagree that we are in turbulent times. I am not about to point us to some mythical or idealized past moment when everyone was empathetic and civil, respecting the dignity of all people, regardless of race, creed, or convictions. Yet, there certainly seems to be a change. On the rare occasion that I listen to a morning news show (usually just when I’m grabbing a quick breakfast at a hotel buffet), I hear people arguing their position on the television,buying into one or more civilly destructive playbooks proposed by liberals and conservatives alike, political playbooks that describe everything in terms of framing, positioning, marketing, and winning over a genuine pursuing of insight, understanding, and a search for truth. In my search for insight about the landscape of such public discourse, I’ve scoured dozens of books over the past year, reading “advice” on how to win the day by framing and re-framing. Here is the sort of advice that I read:

  • If you can’t win on logic, then turn the conversation to a moral frame that will resonate with the listeners. In fact, logic is just one tool. Find the tool that gets your side the wins needed.
  • Don’t doubt your position, especially not in public. Stand your ground. When it is hard to do so, become skilled at shifting your position so you have a better chance of winning the listeners over.
  • Metaphors are powerful tools for communication and influence. Never give into the metaphors of the other side, or they will have the upper hand against you.
  • Some groups don’t deserve the same rights as others. They deserve your lack of respect and ridicule. Anything else might risk justifying their cause in the eyes of the public.
  • The person who tells the best stories wins (which happens to be the title of an article that I wrote almost eight years ago), so learn how to tell stories that resonate with people and draw them to your agenda.
  • Don’t answer the questions that people ask you. Stay on point with your main message. Repeat it and illustrate it over and over again. That is what wins people over to your side, or at least secures those who are already leaning in your direction.
  • Don’t give the proverbial microphone to the other side. Their ideas don’t warrant your attention or listening ear.
  • Put the best construction on your side and ideas, and draw out the worst in the other side, making sure that everyone sees it.
  • Don’t bother talking or engaging in discourse with those who are most secure in their position. They are a lost cause. Instead, focus on those who you have a realistic chance of converting.
  • The goal is to win, and while the end doesn’t justify every means, it sure gives you a great deal of leeway in what you do to get there.
  • This is a war more than it is a debate, so we must act accordingly in our tactics (but usually not going so far as violence).

I’ve read this and much more such advice and it is personally troubling to me. It is not a path to a more humane, compassionate, or civil society. Neither is the opposite view where we disingenuously treat everyone’s words, ideas, and actions as good and acceptable; appealing to some sort of unrealistic relativism or fair-tale version of tolerance.

There is a different way. It is not a simple or clearly defined path, but it is one characterized by some key elements.

  • People commit themselves to a genuine value for understanding, and a recognition of what it takes to understand diverse people and viewpoints.
  • We embrace the idea that people have inherent worth and that they are, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Every person matters.
  • Truth matters. While I’m one of those traditional people who actually believes that something called absolute truth exists, it seems to me that civil discourse depends upon some measure of conviction that some ideas are better than others; that the classical notions of truth, beauty, and goodness continue to have value in guiding our discourse and decisions.
  • Public discourse is more than just a political game that we play to win.
  • We need a shared commitment to a truly grand experiment in what it takes to sustain and grow a truly diverse nation without demonizing the sides with which we disagree or with whom we are convinced are wrong.
  • We work toward a commitment to rekindling the ability to have deep, rigorous, sustained debate and then go out for a jog, a good meal, a shared beverage, a game of golf, or something similar with that person.
  • There is a critical need for cultivating a set of intellectual virtues that better prepare us to engage in civil discourse. These include traits like humility, compassion, empathy, a love for wisdom, disciplined and critical thinking, and the ability to set aside personal interest amid the exploration of ideas and analysis of situations.

These are not absent today, but they are also not what we celebrate or highlight in much of the media. This is not what is modeled in much of society, but it is something that we can embrace in education. In fact, I believe that education should be well-positioned to nurture such traits, as long as we don’t give into the temptation to politicize our communities. This means that we must commit ourselves to the sort of elements that I just described.

Unfortunately, heated debates and dissension in education often resemble the troubling traits of the larger public discourse. That means that we are modeling uncivil, power-based, less humane discourse for a next generation. This is a dragon that needs slaying in our education system. Each person in education has a challenge to ask how they can contribute to the cultivating of truly positive, substantive, civil discourse. We don’t do this by silencing voices or driving people to conformity. We do it by nurturing those intellectual virtues that I described above, modeling civil discourse amid truly diverse beliefs and values, and showing what it looks like to live in community, respecting diverse people, demonstrating a love for wisdom and a humility to learn from others, but also learning to deepen our own convictions. This is not about everything agreeing on all matters. It is about learning to live in a diverse community, country, and world. We learn together. We explore together. We experience life together. We even care for one another.

If we can commit to making schools places where this is commonplace, we will have achieved something far more important than anything that we are currently measuring in our effort to assess the quality of one school over another. Forget college report cards and standardized tests. How are we doing in helping people learn how to embrace civil discourse, nurturing intellectual virtues, being strong advocates for causes and convictions, but also showing a deep respect for the inherent value in others, as well as their rights? Math and language arts are valuable. STEM education and coding is pretty useful as well. However, if we are really interested in contributing to a better future for young people, we are wise to think about what we will contribute to the future of civil discourse.