FEATURE

Toward a More Civil Discourse

New curriculum offers step-by-step lessons for engaging in effective argument on divisive issues.

There is a pressing need to change the tenor of public debate from shouts and slurs to something more reasoned and effective. But it is difficult for teachers already burdened with standardized tests and administrative duties to find the time to craft lessons to teach civil discourse in their classrooms. To support teachers working to change the terms of our national debate, Teaching Tolerance offers a new curriculum entitled “Civil Discourse in the Classroom and Beyond.”

We live in a climate ripe with 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 without regard to its accuracy or appropriateness.

It is 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.

“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. 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. Schools can become a place of intolerance and fear, especially for students who voice minority opinions.

Schools, then, must work to be the site of social transformation, where teachers and young people find ways to communicate effectively.

This is not simply about being polite.

As University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Assistant Professor of Rhetoric Chris Lundberg says, “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.”

The key word, then, is civility.

“The idea of civility … originates in Cicero with the con- cept of the societas civilus,” Lundberg explains. “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.”

This new curriculum — based on lessons tested in diverse classrooms across the United States and proven effective with a wide range of students and topics — will introduce educators to basic tools for teaching civil discourse. It is not subject-specific; on the contrary, the tools of argumentation and discussion lend themselves to any subject in any classroom. Although it is primarily designed for young adolescents, the curriculum can be adapted for students of any age.

Using these lessons, students will be able to turn their unsubstantiated opinions into reasoned arguments. They also will learn how to effectively challenge an opposing argument — not with fists and fury, but rather with a step-by-step process for refutation.

These tools lay the groundwork for productive, reasoned and lively discussions on a variety of topics. They also will give students “training wheels” for learning how to have reasoned arguments outside the classroom.