Campus civility declines as attention turns to groups, not individuals

I recall vividly in the early 1980s spending fifteen minutes walking two hundred yards with my older faculty mentor from our offices to Davidson’s post office. Along the way, he greeted or was greeted by Davidson students, staff, other faculty, and townspeople. For each there was a hearty “good morning” or a “you are looking so well,” or to an advisee, “how is your calculus class going?”

During that same time frame, Davidson welcomed William F. Buckley, Walter Williams, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Spike Lee, among other guests, of varied philosophies and politics, to speak on our campus.

The campus exuded a combination of social civility and intellectual civility.

Social civility marked the warmth shown to individuals, regardless of their particular function on the campus or their demographic grouping. From President Spencer to Luis Connor in the campus post office, to every student, there was an expectation of greeting and care.

The intellectual civility reflected a respect for discourse, democracy, or mutual exchange. A presumption was that one could learn from another, even if that individual came with opinions that you did not share. The expectation was to listen carefully, be open to the argumentation or persuasion, and then perhaps change one’s mind or, as a result of the intellectual challenge, have one’s own convictions strengthened.

Frequently, one learned the most from those who held contrary views. But, in all cases, there seemed to be a welcoming of a diversity of opinion and a sincere respect for difference in thought.

Sadly, recent experience suggests that such an atmosphere does not so pervasively prevail in 2014, at Davidson or other colleges.

Perhaps the distraction of greetings becomes an interruption from thought and personal reflection, viewed, perhaps, as a higher calling. Students, receiving emails and looking at news on line no longer need to go to the post office. With faculty and students’ texting questions to each other, and with students’ texting jokes and social commentary to each other while in the same dormitory, personal interaction can be kept to a minimum, and frequently is. Isolation and self-importance can crowd out traditional civility.

But intellectual civility has fallen, too.

You may recall that students at Smith protested the 2014 graduation invitation to Christine Lagarde, the first female to serve as the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), seemingly on the premise that the IMF has not done enough for the world’s poor. Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College, had to remind us in a piece entitled “Is free speech at risk at our universities?” that free speech is “the foundation of democracy.”

Scripps College refused to permit George Will to speak, even when he was being asked to participate in the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs program, whose very mission is to “bring speakers to campus whose political views differ from the majority of students” at the all-women’s college. Thus, in word, but unfortunately not in deed, does Scripps maintain a respect for the intellectual civility practiced in the past.

We now have speech codes that prohibit “offensive speech,” codes that can dampen one’s inclination to speak with a less than “politically correct message.” Codes that restrict any speech that might offend some group puts group satisfaction above the free exchange of ideas.

Have people become less humane?

I think not. Rather, a preoccupation with concern for individual civility has been overshadowed by concern for demographic groups and their identity. I certainly believe that a student body more reflective of the population, whether U.S. or global, has intrinsic merit. Serious academic studies show that diverse groups can, in fact, learn better and solve problems more effectively, although increased diversity alone does not guarantee that.

The problem is that campus leaders sometimes act as though they must make a choice between respect for the individual and respect for a group. They choose the group, as Smith and Scripps did by opposing individuals because they might hurt the feelings of the poor and of women.

Two years ago at a Davidson College convocation, I spoke to the fact that discomfort and suspicion across groups can be very corrosive to free exchange. I said that my hope was that with a greater comfort across groups, and then across individuals, one result would be “a comfort in the classroom where the faculty member and the students can discuss an extraordinarily important and complicated issue like, higher unemployment rates for younger African American males, without fear of engendering insecurity and mistrust or introducing stereotypes.”

Too often, however, important social and political issues are now avoided as both faculty and students  fear misunderstanding, criticism, even ostracism if they say something that isn’t “correct.” The result is a diminished educational experience.

I am persuaded that there are important linkages across these issues: campus leadership, social civility, intellectual civility, and student composition. On campuses, too many assertions and too little study and reflection threaten to turn complex, ambiguous issues into unquestioned and simplistic truisms. Examples range from positive, but unstudied, assertions about the linkage between on-line technology and true collaborative learning, or the process by which demographic diversity leads to more effective problem solving. Moreover, false assumptions that groups have homogenous opinions and characteristics can lead to the presumption that only specific topics or conclusions can be expressed in the presence of certain groups.

Change on our campuses is needed, motivated by demographic change, technological leaps, and today’s serious financial constraints. Yet we must take care to preserve elements of community that have positively defined campus life in the United States.

Combining group politics with personal respect can be challenging. Too often, with suspicions and assumptions across groups, challenging prevailing beliefs about inequities or discrimination is difficult for faculty and for students, who fear the potential chagrin of their peers. Yet, today, groups that are statistical minorities are increasingly diverse. Whether speaking of student of color or first-generation, the use of any stereotype, from income level to religion, is increasingly inaccurate and condescending. Thus, in some sense engagement should be easier.

We need to find best practices to promote more open engagement. For me the starting point would be a return to a social civility where we know and trust those around us on the campus. In such a case, we can advance differing and even controversial opinions, knowing that we will not be adversely judged for initiating such conversations, as those listening will not assume personal offense.

It seems ironic, and even a bit sad, that campus leaders, the guardians of free exchange, may need to be reminded of the historic importance of the pillars of social and intellectual civility.