The Colgate Scene
September 2005

A message from President Rebecca S. Chopp
The social value of civil discourse

The 2004 election season provided a perfect opportunity for students to practice -- and witness -- civil discourse. Pat Kabat '06 of the debate society moderated a debate between political science professors Robert Kraynak (left) and Joseph Wagner, followed by audience discussion and a viewing of a Bush-Kerry presidential debate. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

One of the most important educational, political, and social issues of the day is how best to have a civil conversation in a democratic society. Our past, present, and future depend on this essential process: citizens gather, listen to each other, debate, make up their minds, and determine a course of action.

Many of us think that, no matter what nook or cranny of the republic we examine, we are not doing a great job of keeping our conversations civil in America today. From TV talk shows where opponents out-shout each other, to blogs where anything can be posted as truth without supporting evidence or facts, to political debates that make a mockery of persuasive rhetoric, we are awash (and perhaps drowning in) uncivil conversation.

Although America has stumbled before in its bold experiment to support a deliberative democracy in which all citizens can discuss and debate the issues of the day, for most of its history Americans have practiced civil conversation. By that I mean listening as well as speaking, respecting different -- even conflicting -- points of view, speaking the truth and citing evidence, and maintaining a genuine openness to changing one's mind. Crucial to our ability to support civil conversation has been the role played by the liberal arts in educating citizens as leaders.

Civil conversation is defined by the very best principles that guide the liberal arts, providing the cornerstone of a Colgate education. In teaching us how to analyze a situation (critical thinking) and how to convey our thoughts (communication), a liberal arts education teaches the skills necessary to be a contributing citizen in a true democracy.

Critical thinking and communication are closely linked to basic social values that we also equate to good citizenship: respect for others, listening, and a willingness to risk changing our minds. Through civil conversation, we translate our highest values into everyday living and doing. In a democracy -- as in a residential liberal arts college -- civil discourse is a life skill, a foundational principle of community, and the engine for politics, economics, and culture.

Today, like all of American society, Colgate struggles to support civil conversation in a diverse, global, and digital world. We may actually be doing better than American society at large. On campus we certainly work hard to uphold our values and traditions of listening as well as speaking, respecting each other's opinions and beliefs, speaking the truth, providing evidence, and being open to changing our minds.

I can proudly cite some great examples:

  • Many of our faculty members report taking time in class to help our students unlearn the practices they've seen and heard on talk shows, and to learn the art of truly listening to each other and discussing opinions, beliefs, and facts.
  • The Student Government Association sponsored a forum last spring to discuss the acquisition of Greek-letter houses. The president of the SGA, Ram Parimi '05, did a wonderful job of moderating the conversation in a civil fashion.
  • The popularity of our debate team and debate program is yet another example of our community's commitment to civil conversation.

Members of the debate team work out their points before engaging in formal debate.
Hundreds of students have participated in an enormous range of events and activities centered on increasing healthy discourse on campus. But sometimes we -- being human -- get swept up in uncivil conversation:

  • In the spring, a group of students marched on the administration building, blocked the entrance, and chanted, "We want Chopp!" (Can you imagine students demanding in loud and hostile tones, "We want Case!"?) I met the group on the stairs, but meaningful dialogue became impossible when my attempts to speak were interrupted.
  • At several lectures in recent years, students have asked hostile questions that weren't so much about asking for information and engaging in debate as they were about putting down another's position. And that practice isn't limited to students: at one lecture a nationally prominent speaker (and frequent talk show guest) offered inaccurate and rude responses to honest questions by students.
  • Too often, e-mail correspondence on campus devolves into personal attacks and hostile rhetoric, representing a style of public discourse intended to incite and attack rather than to inform and persuade.
  • Cases of plagiarism are increasing at Colgate as they are at other colleges. The most basic of all values of civil discourse is to claim one's own opinion and work.
On campus during 2005-2006, we will continue to teach and practice the art and techniques of civil conversation and critical thinking. That is the nature of our mission. We will support a variety of opinions and perspectives, different political and religious beliefs, and a climate of rigorous self-examination and logic.

We want to encourage critical thinking, but we also want to make sure that in our conversations we respect others and seek the truth. The bedrock of this country is a set of values that supports the common good while protecting the individual.

As we go about our mission of teaching students the skills of critical thinking -- skills that will help them to understand themselves and to contribute in their professions and as citizens -- Colgate embraces the values of civil discourse and the practice of real conversation.

Our debate program will foster the skills and forums for discussion of real and substantive issues: from the future of the economy to the role of the judiciary to who is the best baseball team. The new Global Leaders Lecture Series supported by our Society of Families will bring us speakers who can demonstrate the skills, struggles, and aspirations of civil debate. And members of our faculty will continue to take time in their courses to teach what students ought to know already: how to listen, how to state their opinions forcefully but with respect for others, and how to be open to new information.

The "spirit that is Colgate" has always been centered in civil conversation. Nothing is more important for our country; nothing is so important to living out our mission.

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