I’ve argued that universities have deep resources to re-teach to society the importance of civil discourse among opposing viewpoints in a shared search for the truth (see here). Indeed, I believe they have a unique responsibility at this moment in history to act vigorously on this part of their societal role.
It occurs to me that, in every university class I have ever experienced, the course material presents alternative viewpoints on each topic. In science classes, for example, it is common to introduce current understanding of a phenomenon by illustrating the evolution of ideas as discoveries evolved over the decades. Students learn that what was accepted as truth at one point of time was overturned by the march of scientific progress. Usually, at moments of paradigm shifts, there were strong conflicts within the field. Exposing students to those conflicts and how they were resolved – first, with confrontation of opposing theories and then with resolution through new findings – is an important lesson.
In humanities courses, making interpretative judgments about textual or visual material are part of the learning process. The success of a single text in generating multiple interpretations is a testament to its richness, but students need to learn to dissect and debate alternative interpretations. Articulating the evidence for alternative interpretations is a key skill.
In social science courses, alternative theories that explain political, social, and economic behavior are the meat of the disciplines. Classes teach these alternative theories and debate their utility to explain “ground truth.” Learning the relative strengths and weaknesses of alternative theories is knowledge needed to “do” social science.
So what do faculty have to offer in a society where all visual and print media are displaying people shouting and roughing up each other over opposing viewpoints? How could classroom experiences teach skills that might help our students learn to be leaders in a world of strongly conflicting views?
Very minor tweaks to courses could have students engage the opposing viewpoints in the course material in an active way. These classroom exercises would teach exactly what the academy excels at – debate discourse that focuses on opposing ideas not opposing actors, that identifies the key ideas of the viewpoints that conflict, that requires evidence to be presented, and that requires the actors to honestly admit when they have no evidence to refute an argument.
Some of the students who come to us this fall have not witnessed, to any important degree, this type of discourse. It is not being generated by our current society in sufficient volume. We need to show them how it’s done.
Each of our classes could illustrate these norms of confrontation of opposing viewpoints. Involving the students actively in simulating these dialogues might act as a small step forward in our students learning the skills of civil discourse and honest shared dialogue in a common search for the truth.
Universities need to do all they can to model the behavior of civil discourse about conflicting ideas. But institutions are really just collections of individuals. All of us at Georgetown have a stake in this.