Chapter 1: Civil Discourse In The Classroom And Beyond

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A supporter of Thomas Jefferson once called John Adams "a hideously hermaphroditical character." Former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton called Vice President Aaron Burr "bankrupt by redemption except by the plunder of his country," an attack so heinous that the men dueled, and Hamilton died.

Go through the nation's history, and the noise and heat in public political discourse have always been there, rising with the cycles of economic distress, immigration and cultural upheaval.

- Ann Gerhart (The Washington Post, “In Today’s Viral World, Who Keeps a Civil Tongue?” October 11, 2009. Online.)

A New Age of Incivility?

We live in a climate ripe for noise: Media outlets and 24-hour news cycles mean that everyone with access to a computer has access to a megaphone to broadcast their views. Never before in human history has an opinion had the opportunity to reach so many so quickly regardless of its accuracy or appropriateness.

Of course, it’s difficult to hear anything when everyone has a megaphone. For young people trying to learn how to speak and listen, this is an especially complicated business. Compounding the situation, these young people are attempting this learning in an era when athletes routinely hurl invective at umpires, referees and other athletes; when “entertainment” is laced with verbal and physical abuse; and when political protests too often lead to physical attacks.

“The lesson learned is a dangerous one,” says Danielle Wiese Leek, assistant professor in the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. “First, it's anti-democratic. It's not about learning to be exposed to a variety of perspectives in order to draw the best conclusion. It teaches young people that if they aren't the loudest, their opinion doesn't matter. Second, it shuts down opportunities for collaboration and innovation. Some of the best ideas that have been produced throughout human history came from people working together.”

Educators are well positioned to provide a counterweight to this loudest-is-best approach. Speaking in a classroom or school environment is not the same as speaking in the outside world. Schools and classrooms strive to be safe places where students can exchange ideas, try out opinions and receive feedback on their ideas without fear or intimidation.

Children, of course, often come to school with opinions or prejudices they have learned in their homes or from the media. This means that it is also possible for schools to become places of intolerance and fear, especially for students who voice minority opinions.

Schools must work to be sites of social transformation where teachers and young people find ways to communicate effectively.

Toward A Civil Discourse

A number of commentators recently have suggested that a renewed emphasis on education in manners would go a long way toward improving the public discourse. But University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Assistant Professor of Rhetoric Chris Lundberg says that we should be careful about overemphasizing politeness a prerequisite for good public discourse: “There are times when a certain degree of impoliteness is called for. If we say we are only going to allow polite discourse in the public sphere, we are writing off the first group of women who wanted political suffrage, because at the time that was seen as impolite.”

This is not to say that we should not teach students to be polite to each other; on the contrary, good manners should be a staple of social education from an early age. But civil discourse requires something more than politeness. As Lundberg suggests, we can reach back into history to find another notion of “civil” on which to build a new civil discourse: “The idea of civility does not mean politeness. It originates in Cicero with the concept of the societas civilus. What it meant was that there are certain standards of conduct towards others and that members of the civil society should comport themselves in a way that sought the good of the city. The old concept of civility was much more explicitly political than our current notion of politeness. Speech was filtered through how it did or did not contribute to the good of the city.”

Civil discourse is discourse that supports, rather than undermines, the societal good. It demands that democratic participants respect each other, even when that respect is hard to give or to earn. Democratic societies must be societies where arguments are tolerated and encouraged, but this is not always easy. “To engage in a healthy political argument is to acknowledge the possibility that one's own arguments could be falsified or proven wrong,” says Thomas Hollihan, professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication. “This demands that citizens listen respectfully to the claims made by others. Name-calling, threats and bullying behaviors do not meet the demands of effective deliberation.”

About This Curriculum

This curriculum will introduce basic tools for teaching civil discourse. It is not subject-specific; on the contrary, these tools of argumentation and discussion lend themselves to any subject in any classroom.

That said, a variety of challenges should be expected when embarking on a course of teaching civil discourse.

Young people – like all people – are afraid of public speaking. Classroom discussion can prove intimidating for some students. It may be useful to administer a communication skills self-assessment for students before including oral-intensive activities in a classroom. Ask students about their fears and concerns about speaking up in the classroom, and work to address those issues through individual or group work.

Intersections of race, class and gender also affect students’ communication habits. This is well documented in other areas of academic life, and there is no reason that oral communication should be any different.

“There are profound cultural differences in how people argue,” says Hollihan. “These differences are so profound, in fact, that I do not think any prescriptive approach will work in all of them. Instead, I think teachers need to openly discuss these differences in a sort of ‘meta’ conversation with their students.”

Hollihan suggests having students discuss the cultural norms that shape discussions in their homes and then work outward to describing how these communication styles affect relationships with others in their extended families, friends, communities and classmates.

Some students, for example, may come from households where current events are routinely discussed. Others may have parents who never watch the news. Some students may come from homes where racial prejudices are taken as a matter of course; others may have never considered a world in which intolerance is taken seriously. Encouraging students to talk to each other means encouraging a context where it is possible, even likely, that these diverse backgrounds and expectations will create moments that may be awkward but also contain opportunity for deeper mutual understanding.

It is important to remember that the lesson of civil discourse is an ongoing one. The tools provided here can be used in any number of settings and lessons beyond their introduction and initial use. Seek ways throughout the year to return to – and refresh – these lessons. Perhaps even offer students incentives for pointing out when these tools are used in situations beyond the actual lessons.