As divisions grow deeper across the U.S., social scientists have begun to learn more about its causes, and effects. On college and university campuses across the country, personal opinions shared through social media channels have contributed to increased polarization each year. The increasingly divisive discourse has made it harder for these students to learn how to have productive conversations with those who hold views different from their own.
As students across divides become pitted against each other, they are increasingly reluctant to share controversial views with one another in person. As an illustration, the 2022-2023 College Free Speech Rankings Report found that 63% of students worry that their reputations will be negatively affected because something they said or did was misunderstood. The report also found that more than 20% of students feel pressured to avoid discussing controversial topics such as abortion, racial inequality and gun control in class. This inclination toward self-censorship deprives students of the opportunity to put their own ideas to the test and to develop an understanding of other points of view.
To promote civil discourse across differences in these settings, AVDF awarded a grant of $281,932 in 2021 to Braver Angels. Braver Angels is a national citizens’ movement committed to bringing Americans with differing views together to help them understand one another through various engagement programs. The success of the 2021 grant resulted in AVDF providing follow-up funding to Braver Angels in 2023 to continue the expansion of their civil discourse programming at colleges and universities across the nation.
A major component of the Braver Angels program is its uniquely formatted debates that create an environment of informed and respectful dialogue across disagreements.
“As of June 2023, Braver Angels has launched 180 campus and classroom debates and engaged over 6,000 students from more than 75 colleges and universities. The program uses a collaborative debate format that empowers participants to share their own beliefs and helps them to understand contrasting perspectives. It has shown itself to be an effective tool for building bridges across fundamental disagreements,” said AVDF Director of Programs John Churchill.
To expand their reach on higher education campuses, Braver Angels partnered with BridgeUSA, another AVDF grantee, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni to form the College Debates and Discourse Alliance. The topics of each debate engage some of the nation’s most challenging political and social disputes. Instead of two people arguing their side of an issue as is done in a typical debate, a Braver Angels debate allows everyone in the room to participate by taking the floor and directing comments to the debate chair, a trained expert. Braver Angels has found that this format encourages participation from diverse groups including conservative college students who often feel alienated by other forms of civil discourse programming.
“The Braver Angels debate helps students build relationships through structured conflict that engages rather than avoids deep differences. Participants leave the debate a little closer to the truth after rigorous discussions with people who hold alternative views. Our aim is to change the campus political culture by providing opportunities for students to participate in productive discourse and equipping them with the skills necessary to participate in difficult conversations,” said April Lawson Kornfield, Director of Debates and Public Discourse at Braver Angels.
As part of the 2021 AVDF grant, a Braver Angels survey found that a majority of student respondents left the debate experience with a more positive outlook on political discourse, a greater understanding of differing viewpoints, and an increased willingness to share their opinions in class.
The successful debates have prompted some schools to request that Braver Angels provide further campus programming. Last fall, Denison University in Ohio hosted Braver Angels debates for all its incoming freshmen. Similarly, Duke asked the Braver Angels team to design and deliver an immersive workshop on polarization for 140 freshmen that will study political science and public policy.
Another result of the original AVDF grant to Braver Angels was the creation of an online toolkit designed to help higher education instructors conduct Braver Angels-style debates. The Braver Angels Curricular Toolkit is available online and free to download.