The Free Press, Mankato, MN


April 28, 2010

Our View: Discourse needs to be civil

America’s colleges and universities should lead the way in teaching the rest of us that the free exchange of ideas is crucial in a democratic society, but too often complaints are heard that intolerance and incivility are alive and well in our institutions of higher learning.

Supreme Court justices, sitting U.S. legislators, even the sitting president of the United States has been the object of protest for being invited to speak at a public university. Other speakers have been disrupted while speaking.

But some educational institutions are beginning to address the problem, and among them is Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas, which has conceived of several programs to teach civil discourse. Not only is St. Thomas offering a course for freshmen showing them how to interact respectfully to opposing views, but it is considering imbedding the program into existing curriculum to make it a graduation requirement.

St. Thomas is not the first university to address civility in such a way, but it is going farther than most are willing to go. It has committed $1 million and raised $200,000 from donors toward establishing an Endowed Chair in Civil Discourse.

Few would argue that intolerance for opposing points of view is uncommon. Sometimes there is the mere disagreement of the choice of speaker. In March 2007, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was deemed unacceptable by students as a commencement speaker at St. Mary’s College in Indiana. When President Obama was asked to give a commencement address at Notre Dame in May 2009, a firestorm ensued because of his abortion rights politics. Former Congressman Tom Tancredo, a critic of current immigration policies, was threatened with protests this week for delivering a speech at the University of North Carolina entitled “Why Western Civilization is Worth Saving.” Syracuse University students are still protesting a scheduled May 16 commencement address by JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, apparently for no other reason than Dimon is a reminder of big banks’ important influence in our society.

At other times, discourse is disrupted as it happens. Karl Rove, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, has had book signing events disrupted in mid-sentence, and students at the University of Minnesota have promised to protest another book signing (scheduled for today) on campus. In February of this year, 11 students at the University of California-Irvine were arrested for repeatedly disrupting a speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

When speakers are not allowed to be heard, nothing is learned. Rudeness rarely wins converts. There are better ways to demonstrate disapproval — leaflets, petitions, rallies held at a respectful distance — than to disrupt.

The question we must all ask ourselves is: Who gains when the only ideas we listen to are those to which we already subscribe? To be truly educated on all sides of a question, we must allow ourselves — and others — the opportunity to hear all sides. So we applaud university programs that teach respect for civil discourse.

We probably cannot improve on the statement made by Marisa Kelly, dean of St. Thomas’ College of Arts and Sciences, who has remarked, “Civil discourse is more than just the tone of your dialogue … True civil discourse is people who are willing to think seriously about the position of those different from their own and to consider arguments in its favor and the data, evidence and conclusions.”

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