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11-15-2018 ·

Taking the High Road

The path back to civil discourse includes higher education.

Last July 4, the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote that “There is cause today to be nervous about our national debate, in part because the tactics have moved from merely attacking each other’s arguments, or even attacking each other, to attacking the legitimacy of the institutions and conventions that allow the debate to take place.”

We can, and must, return to civil discourse in the public square. There are millions of homes across this country wherein civil dis-course still happens. In fact, home is where we learn how to air grievances respectfully, acquire facts and discuss opinions intelligently. If higher education can offer one thing to our nation, it’s building on what we’re supposed to learn at home: Looking at things from someone else’s perspective, critically (in an analytical sense) and compassionately. And if we haven’t learned these lessons from our family, then colleges can pick up the mantle and teach us to lift our speech to a higher level.

What better time than now for universities to emphasize courses and seminars on debate, critical thinking and apologetics. I see our universities and employers creating a partnership (and a place) where we can go to learn to discuss what divides us.

There’s a problem with higher education if all we have to show for our participation is one viewpoint. We have to infuse our speech with compassion and civility. We have to see these traits as an invitation to learn instead of naiveté.

In the early 1970s, management consultants began using the phrase “think outside the box” to encourage businesspeople to consider any number of options for a solution. That phrase is now as bland as oatmeal. But the original intent might be an anecdote to the bifurcated approach of today’s debates (if we can even call what we do with one another debate). Our arguments are largely one dimensional, devoid of facts and hurled across an ideological fault line.

One important role for the educational experience is to help us suspend our opinion while we learn. Brown University has been doing this sort of thing for 50 years. Since the turbulent 1960s (and to create a safe, organized forum for protest) Brown has had a policy allowing any student organization or faculty member on campus to invite any speaker of their choice. When students complain or object to a speaker, administrators point to a policy that’s served everyone for half a century.

Universities, many of which are research institutions, exist to postulate theories and back them up with facts. So why can’t universities model a way for us all to speak about topics where there isn’t agreement? Our universities, along with educating us about the tools for engaging in civil discourse, could offer the physical space for companies to explore charged topics that workers may sup-press on the job. Without a way to reasonably, kindly articulate how we’re feeling about our co-workers or workplace, employees’ emotions are bottled up; good people grow weary and may even quit without really explaining why. Productivity and ingenuity suffer because we harbor grudges or passively resist working with certain teams.

Imagine a workplace discussion where colleagues speak out on a topic you disagree with on moral grounds. You’re asked your opinion. You can decline to comment, lie or share your belief.

Does offering that deeply held belief become widely known and even get in the way of you closing a deal with a customer? Will your co-workers accept your right to hold a certain position, maybe even empathize with you? I believe our universities could teach employees how to not agree and see the value in a person or an idea held by a co-worker.

So how can a company create an environment for civil discourse? I believe it comes down to an employer’s values and willingness to let workers air opinions and beliefs without fear of retribution. Universities can give young people the learning experiences to understand and appreciate different people and ideas. Higher education can also provide the physical space and tools to help us re-claim civil discourse. And perhaps companies could tap into this neutral space as a potential resource for discussing topics too hot to handle on the job.