Civil Discourse and Advancing the Collective Good in Higher Education

Janett Cordovés , Senior Program Director, College Presidents Consortium

January 10, 2024


The Faculty Development Institute on Dialogue Across Difference convening in August 2023 at Duke University brought together 30 faculty members across disciplines from 20 different institutions.


A thriving democracy depends on citizens who embrace diverse viewpoints, challenge ideas, and foster constructive dialogue. Higher education, as a public good, is charged to help shape the next generation of empowered citizens. Yet we’re seeing weekly headlines about the debate and demise of  free expression and critical inquiry on college campuses.

Universities are among the few places in America where people from different backgrounds and ideologies are physically near one another. We should embrace, celebrate, and cultivate this rare opportunity to engage with one another and each other’s perspectives, ideas, and beliefs. However, reflecting on my own college journey, the focus was often on downloading information, chasing grades, applying for graduate school, and securing a good job and hopefully one with a decent salary. There wasn’t space dedicated to intellectual debate with other students. I’m not sure if I or my classmates were looking for it, but I also think there wasn’t any time. I had a full course load each semester, and I suspect many others did as well, that there didn’t seem to be enough time for all the things I think about now as essential. Looking back, I know I had practice with constructive disagreement, through clubs, sports, and being a resident assistant, but honestly, my deliberative dialogue skills come from my culture and home and the conversations around the dinner table with my family, not from the academy.

For several decades, our society and education policies have prioritized preparing young people for the rapidly changing job market. We have made degrees transactional, turning higher education into a consumer good. Classroom instruction is now dictated by a “what is in it for me” doctrine. We ask students questions about satisfaction on faculty evaluation surveys, with less focus on learning, challenges and issues highlighted in the reading, and discomfort, growth, or tension with the materials.

At the same time, faculty are facing their own career pressures in a competition for tenure-track positions. They lack the protections to wrestle with difficult topics in the classroom, the pedological training to structure a learning environment where they can model civil discourse, and the proper incentives to do so. They need support, encouragement, and motivation. In all, we must move from an individualist towards a collectivist approach to learning in order to ensure our students graduate with the skillsets and experiences needed for a democratic citizenry.

At the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, we are reimagining civic preparedness in higher education and the skillsets and dispositions necessary for a flourishing democracy. In my role as Senior Program Director for the Presidents Consortium, I lead our work with the Faculty Development Institute on Dialogue Across Difference, a key project of College Presidents for Civic Preparedness. We gathered over 30 faculty from diverse institutions, including Ivys, flagship state universities, HBCUs, religiously affiliated, and liberal arts colleges, who deeply care about education, student learning, and growth, and want to create classrooms filled with robust intellectual conversations that allow engagement across differences.

In a recent national survey by Citizens & Scholars, The Civic Outlook of Young Adults in America, we discovered a complicated dynamic: while 37% of the 18-24-year-olds we polled found discussions with those with different views interesting and informative, a close 35% found such discussions to be stressful and frustrating. It’s clear that our work in the Faculty Development Institute requires us to address both of these findings. That’s why we’re helping professors share best practices in facilitating classroom discussions that draw more students in, articulating the importance of dissent in the learning environment, and role modeling it. Here’s a glimpse of some of our efforts:

  • Envision what the classroom would look and feel like if all the diverse ideas were presented while meeting each learning objective.
  • Discuss design and what’s needed to lead productive conversations: where are the pivot points, when to interject another perspective, what activity encourages students to wrestle with the ideas, how to present their viewpoints, and ways to add to the nuance.
  • Practice improv and the model, like “Yes, and”, that takes ideas and builds upon them without negating the previous idea.
  • Emphasize asking questions of the ideas, not attacking the person. (We take “winning” an argument off the table.)
  • Explore ways for students to co-teach the material and create various modalities for learning, including reflection, case studies, and debate to meet the needs of the interdisciplinary faculty and diverse learning needs present in our classrooms.
  • Practice listening.

As we evaluate our work, we are already seeing students gaining the skills to move through frustration and stress and participate in discussions because their professors are committed to fostering civil discourse. It’s encouraging that these ways of teaching are gaining traction and being introduced or reemphasized in classrooms nationwide.

The reality is that genuine learning happens when ideas are challenged, and we have the opportunity to wrestle with them, ask questions, research, articulate our thoughts, change our minds, and explore.  Our field has more work to do, including defining and identifying the limitations of this type of engagement. Multiple approaches are needed, but I see the framing of the good of the collective versus the individual as key to ensuring the work sticks. If this type of faculty programming is implemented on campuses across the country, students will be better equipped with the skills they need to become empowered citizens. The future of our democracy depends on it.

Related: Takeaways from UChicago Forum for Free Inquiry

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