America’s uncivil speech must move from discord to dialogue

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When the life of Sen. John McCain is remembered on Saturday at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., his presidential rivals will honor the famed naval aviator and statesman. Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, once fierce opponents of McCain, are expected to speak at the service. As fellow Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake made clear, “These were bitter contests, both of them. To ask them to speak at your funeral, and for them to be honored at the opportunity, that tells you all you need to know.”

This bipartisan act of public commemoration is a testament to Sen. McCain and to the profound impact he has had on our common political culture. But it also feels that, in mourning the passing of this statesman, we are mourning something greater. On this occasion, our political differences will be muted, as we honor a figure who in many ways exemplified honor itself. What sort of occasion will bring us together in this way again?

{mosads}We rightly decry the decline of civil discourse. The rancor currently encountered in the public sphere is corrosive. Earlier this year, one poll found that even across the widening chasm of political party lines, Americans are “generally united in the belief that uncivil behavior is rampant and having profound and negative effects on our democracy.”

Yet uncivil speech is a symptom of a greater problem. Civil discourse is not an end in itself.  Speaking civilly is the foundation of something more important — authentic dialogue. And it is through dialogue that civil society is formed and sustained.

The purpose of dialogue is not simply to speak politely to one another. It is to have frank, even difficult, conversations, the end of which are not victory for one side, but the advancement of the best argument. To achieve this, while we may have differences of opinion, we must trust that we have common goals.

Unfortunately, a chasm is growing. We are turning away not only from one another, but from opinions that do not align with our own. We have even produced browser extensions that one can install to hide viewpoints that are distressing. This compounds our isolation. As author and Upworthy CEO Eli Pariser notes, “If algorithms are going to curate the world for us … then we need to make sure that they also show us things that are uncomfortable or challenging or important.” But we are moving further away from this.

As a college president, I believe higher education has a particular responsibility in this regard. We must foster free and open minds so our graduates can flourish as individuals and our society can flourish as a whole. We owe it to our students to provide a forum where they can engage with that which is out of step with their assumptions.

But today, difficult conversations often are avoided on campuses and students often are able to follow courses of study that allow them to progress without exploring new or opposing ideas. Students instead should be encouraged to pursue an education that fosters the kind of critical thinking required of a free individual in a free society.

St. John’s College, where I am president, offers only one curriculum, anchored in classic texts, and in this we find there is an antidote to today’s discord — it is in developing the skill of dialogue.

“Dialogue” implies two (or more) persons who are not merely speaking with civility but also are deeply listening to one another, harkening to what the other says, and developing lines of thinking that are complex, nuanced and dynamic. True dialogue is not about sharing already settled opinions; it should provide, rather, the crucible in which we test and give shape to our ideas.

Because of this, we ask our students to engage with challenging, and often provocative, texts. With one curriculum across the entire college, they must learn to do this together. And together they discover how all areas of human knowledge — the natural and social sciences, mathematics, and the arts and humanities — are interrelated. Together they push toward truth and reveal how we all are connected. The curriculum is modeled on the Socratic method, through which students learn to be honest about the flaws in their own arguments, how to hear the strengths and weaknesses of others’ arguments, and how to be intellectually nimble and open-minded.

By testing their own opinions as they test the claims of others, our students learn to read attentively, listen carefully, reason effectively, question everything, think openly and flexibly, and work respectfully and collaboratively.

Students at St. John’s address each other formally in class, again to encourage civility and respect. And we go out of our way to welcome diversity of thought. Two recent examples come to mind. In 2016, St. John’s invited liberal Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to its Santa Fe, New Mexico, campus to speak. Less than a year later, the same students welcomed conservative Michael Mukasey to school, for a lecture from the former attorney general.

Confronting ideas and ways of looking at the world that are markedly different from one’s own requires commitment, maturity, flexibility, humility and courage. This doesn’t mean that one is obligated to concede one’s ground easily. As Aristotle wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.” Yet we ought to commit, first and foremost, to a singular truth — that we come to know ourselves best through conversation with others.

Sharp differences of opinion always will exist. We have only two rules for conversation at St. John’s College: that every opinion is to be heard, and that every argument must be backed up by evidence. If our society as a whole were to hold to the same principles, our national discourse undoubtedly would become more civil.

Peter (Pano) Kanelos is president of the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College, the nation’s third-oldest institution of higher learning, which has a second campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He previously served as dean of Christ College, the honors college of Valparaiso University in Indiana, where he also managed recruitment and admissions. He oversaw the administration and finances of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, a network of 100 colleges and universities that advances liberal arts education.

Tags Barack Obama civility curriculum Dialogue Etiquette Human behavior Jeff Flake John McCain Popular culture

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