Preparing students to be capable, engaged members of society is one of our primary responsibilities in higher education.
In a democatic nation, that must include working with our students on how to express effectively an opinion without infringing on others’ right to do likewise. In essence, we must teach our students civil discourse. That is largely a learned skill, and colleges and universities are well-positioned to address the challenge. The longstanding traditions of academic debate and scientific research in higher education are predicated on the free exchange of ideas, on presenting opinions or theories in a way that welcomes dissenting views in order to advance our knowledge and understanding.
In Wisconsin, we like to recall the words set forth by the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents on this subject in 1894: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
If democracy is something that we truly value, then board members, as stewards of the university, have a responsibility to ensure that their graduates become familiar with, and accomplished in, what it takes to be civil. As trustees, we must first set a good example—modeling civil behavior in our deliberations and decisions. We must demonstrate that even the most divisive issues of university governance can still be addressed through constructive dialogue and respectful debate.
We must encourage civility among our university leaders and ensure that these basic principles permeate the academic curriculum and institutional policies. We must remember that higher education plays a vital role in maintaining a democratic society, and civil discourse is a key ingredient in both vibrant colleges and healthy democracy.
Ultimately, democracy is a system of government that is about compromise. For democracy to work, people must be able to advance their points of view strongly and persuasively—knowing that others will do the same. To move beyond stalemate, they must be willing both to assert a position and to cede ground. Furthermore, there must be a mutual recognition that it doesn’t pay, in the long run, to gloat over the spoils of any victory. Odds are good we shall meet again.
I don’t believe we talk to our students enough about this.
We need to be asking the basic questions with them. What constitutes civil behavior? Are we contributing to a general sense of civility in our communities? Are we willing to confront those who engage in acts of disrespect and hostility? What does it mean to live in a democracy? Every generation must answer these questions anew, building upon lessons learned from the past.
Engaging in civil discourse and freely exchanging diverse ideas has practical benefits for our students as well. Over and over, it’s been shown that exposure to a broad range of perspectives produces students—and ultimately citizens—who are more analytical, more engaged, more creative, more open to collaborative endeavors.
It’s not easy. Acts of intolerance and violence occur all across our nation, in big cities and rural communities alike. We recognize that our society isn’t always welcoming to ideas that don’t mirror our own. Indeed, at a time when impulse tweets, grandstanding rants, and popular news media often seem to celebrate incivility, we have a special obligation to see that our students learn that there are more productive ways to conduct the democratic dialogue.
Even as I write this, we are experiencing massive and so far peaceful demonstrations here in Madison on the issue of workers’ rights to unionize. Thousands of Wisconsin citizens, young and old, with differing opinions on the role of government have converged at our state capitol, asking that their voices be heard. At this moment, we don’t know how this will play out, but we hope it will go down as a “teachable moment” in the course curriculum of “Civility 101.”