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The importance of civil discourse

ETSU President Brian Noland, Guest Columnist • Mar 4, 2018 at 8:30 AM

These are times of change at a national level as we wrestle with the intensity of political issues that reach new highs, or lows, with each passing day. We have arrived at a point in our nation’s history in which debate and civil discourse are strained, contentious and lacking the basic ground rule that our parents taught us when we went to kindergarten: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

While we have a relatively peaceful campus, East Tennessee State University is not immune from this tension. Issues have been played out on our grounds and on campuses across the country, as we see renewed activism, discussions of safe spaces, riots in California and new definitions of the word snowflake. What is lost in the noise, however, is a reflection on the role of higher education in American society and the purpose of a university experience.

The university experience is as varied and diverse as the millions of students enrolled in colleges across our nation. In addition to being places of personal exploration and pre-professional development, universities provide a natural palate for debate and disagreement. Throughout the history of American higher education, one of the central tasks of the academy has been to prepare individuals to transition into our representative democracy. In doing so, we not only create the future, but create an appreciation for the complexity of perspectives, beliefs and values that comprise democratic nations.

While students often enter college with some idea of their own values, higher education inherently tests those values by challenging students to see other perspectives and teaching them to appropriately address differences of opinion. In today’s ever-evolving world, that has become all the more difficult.

Today’s current breakdown in public discourse is chipping away at the very core of our participatory democracy, and maybe undermining the sense of collective compromise that is required for democracies to thrive. As a political scientist, I am fascinated by the changes, conversations, and confusion that are evident across our country. As a discipline, many political scientists are beginning to question whether or not our democratic structures can operate in an environment in which our public arenas may be incapable of debate, compromise and give-and-take.

Civil discourse embodies the very values of civic learning: open-mindedness, compromise, and mutual respect. Participants in civil discourse must learn about all sides of the issue at hand by respectfully listening to alternative interpretations, critically weighing the information’s veracity, analyzing what they’ve heard, and being willing to alter their positions based on a convincing argument and evidence. Unfortunately, this does not occur in an environment driven by anonymous online posts and social media paranoia. American society is among the most informal in the world, and that informality often crosses over into incivility. We now have the information mallet of the Internet and all bets are off. We live in an age of total disclosure and total expression. There are no boundaries, and anything one says or does can become fodder for a tweet or Facebook posting.

These social media platforms create intentional conversation, providing the ability to comment at will. But often, those comments are made without thoughtful contemplation, and in many cases, with anonymity. Civility is on life support as many have simply forgotten how to show respect and compassion for others.

As leaders in higher education, we must help move our nation past the dissension and lack of civil discourse that is distracting our country.

As an institution of higher learning, one that employs faculty whose life is a pursuit of knowledge, we by our very nature are built to test beliefs. The process of research, discovery and inquiry provides a foundation for our general education core. I firmly believe that civil discourse is at the heart of undergraduate education. It must not be relegated to student affairs or simply embodied in codes of conduct or free speech legislation. The foundations of civil discourse must be addressed in the general education core and embraced across the curriculum.

The robust engagement with difficult ideas is the basic tenet of academic freedom. At a healthy and vibrant institution, the responsibility falls to every faculty member and administrator to do their part in resisting the allure of certitude. It is such certitude about one’s own viewpoints, along with the intolerance of others’ viewpoints, that is the central cause of democratic failure.

We have a responsibility as educators to push ourselves and our students. In the end, their beliefs, as well as ours, may not change or grow stronger, but we will understand why we hold those beliefs and hopefully our beliefs will be rooted in inquiry rather than the predispositions of family or friends, or worse, a random and uninformed social media post.

Dr. Brian Noland is president of East Tennessee State University.

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