As polarization increases across the United States, our interest in and ability to discuss important and sometimes divisive issues across lines of social, moral, political, and religious difference is under threat. And yet, history and experience makes it clear that a pluralistic democracy can thrive only when we are able to wrestle with such issues openly and respectfully.
Unfortunately, opportunities to see, learn, or practice respectful disagreement and dialogue with those who hold different views are not readily available. As a result, AVDF places a special emphasis on funding programs related to the teaching and practice of civil discourse skills in colleges and universities. These programs ultimately aim to equip America’s emerging leaders to respectfully engage with a variety of individuals and viewpoints.
A recent grant to Duke University expands upon the Foundations’ efforts in this space. With AVDF support, Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics will host a summer program in two consecutive years that will assist faculty members in developing courses that teach students how to dialogue constructively across lines of political disagreement.
The project will be led by John Rose, Associate Director of the Civil Discourse. In addition to his work through the Kenan Institute, Rose has taught several classes at Duke that have successfully promoted civil discourse and increased student understanding of differing viewpoints on a range of issues.
“I created my courses as something of an experiment to see what would happen if a more open classroom environment were created for the students,” explains Rose. “To my delight, they have responded with great enthusiasm. Many tell me the course changes the way they see and speak to people with whom they have political disagreements. They enter the class believing that ‘the other’ are enemies who need to be subdued in debate, and they leave the class realizing that people on the ‘other side’ are actually fellow learners and citizens with whom they must reason and live.”
With AVDF funding, Rose will lead a four-day seminar for professors from other institutions who wish to offer similar courses. The seminar will include guidance on potential course content, best practices for promoting civil classroom discussion on sensitive topics, and guidance on using university resources to strengthen the course offerings. The seminars will be offered to up to twenty faculty each year on a competitive basis, and each participant must pledge to offer a course incorporating the concepts introduced in the seminar within three semesters of attending the summer gathering. As a result, AVDF expects 30–40 new courses incorporating civil discourse concepts to be offered on campuses across the country by the end of the grant period.
The project promises to meet an important need in the United States. According to Dr. John Churchill, Director of Programs at AVDF, “In many colleges and universities – as in the United States at large – engaging in civil discussion about moral and political topics is not the norm. The Duke project will result in a number of new courses aimed at reversing this trend across a range of colleges and universities.”