An Ambassador of Civil Discourse

In today’s universities—and in society in general—the ability to engage in intellectually rigorous and courteous conversation can appear to be a lost art. All too often, the rule of politically correct opinions wields an overwhelming power over the ability to engage in thoughtful debate.

But there is increasingly pressure to restore civil discourse to the academy. One of the movement’s leaders is Robert P. George of Princeton University. George is renowned for founding the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, an academic center that has been able to introduce conservative thought onto the Princeton campus and beyond.

According to its mission statement, the program “promotes teaching and scholarship in constitutional law and political thought” and aims to provide a rigorous, but open, environment for vibrant conversations (and disagreements) to take place. The program regularly hosts prominent academics and guest speakers from around the country from a wide range of political views. Students also have the opportunity to take courses sponsored by the James Madison Program.

George has also developed an unlikely friendship with Harvard religion professor Cornel West. The two academics—George a stalwart conservative and West a self-described “radical Democrat”—travel to college campuses across the country to publicly debate each other on their most closely held beliefs. The goal is to set an example of how civil discourse should look, in contrast to the current tendency of demonizing those who hold views opposed to one’s own.

George’s positive influence in academia and his ability to reach across ideological barriers has not gone unnoticed by others who wish to instill courtesy in the university. This includes some of the top leaders of the University of North Carolina system, including President Margaret Spellings and several members of the Board of Governors. Last fall semester, a group of university officials, including President Spellings, board members, and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, went to Princeton to meet George in person.

Obviously impressed with that initial meeting, they invited George to Chapel Hill. On December 15th, he addressed the UNC Board of Governors about his experience directing a successful viewpoint-diverse program on a university campus. In his opening comments before the full board, George described his educational philosophy and how to promote civil discourse on campus.

He emphasized that his goal as an educator is not to “tell” students what to think, but rather to expose them to the “best of what has been thought” on a wide range of issues, and to help them to think “carefully, clearly, and for themselves.” The James Madison Program reflects that educational philosophy.

But not everybody in the UNC system considers a lack of civil discourse to be a problem. George’s presentation before the Board of Governors, UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor Steve Leonard said that he did not see the reason for George’s visit in the first place. “That talk could have been delivered by any number of UNC faculty. It’s disappointing, and to some extent insulting, that the Board of Governors is so unaware of that fact that they would invite someone from the outside to do what a faculty member here in North Carolina could have done.”

But Leonard’s comments reveal a wide gulf of opinions on the topic. While civility may be the rule in many classrooms, and many faculty may support the open exchange of ideas, there is still a widespread fear of holding contrarian viewpoints on campus.

And that fear does not appear to be irrational. Indeed, several students have told the Martin Center that they often tailor their essays to fit the mainstream interpretations of their professors in order to receive a good grade. A former Martin Center intern said that he received failing grades and death threats for expressing conservative opinions inside and outside of class.

And there is a seemingly endless stream of examples of such incidents in the media. The problem appears to be prevalent in academia, which may explain why George’s presentation was such a draw: the entire room was filled to hear his message of hope. George said that the open, rigorous, and civil discourse that the James Madison Program has fostered has transformed and positively influenced the overall “ethos” on his campus. He claimed that no one has ever attempted to shout down his program’s events or guest speakers—regardless of the speakers’ philosophical and political leanings. Furthermore, he said that he has never been pressured by administrators or other faculty to teach—or not teach—certain subjects or points of view.

It might seem that George’s experiences are unrepresentative since many academics and students do not enjoy the same degree of academic freedom he has. One only has to look to Evergreen State College or Middlebury College for recent examples of intellectual intolerance. In both instances, professors feared for their safety or were actually harmed for holding—or merely being open to—politically incorrect beliefs.

In the wake of the incident at Middlebury, where guest speaker and scholar Charles Murray was violently shut down by raucous student protestors, Robert George and Cornel West jointly released a statement decrying these events and warning against the dangers of militant close-mindedness. “The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.”

Many students have a real interest in others’ opinions and eagerly seek out, rather than simply tolerate, robust debate.

The state of affairs proposed by George and West—with all on campus willing to respectfully “listen and engage” with their ideological opponents—is clearly optimal. And there is great demand for such openness; many students have a real interest in others’ opinions and eagerly seek out, rather than simply tolerate, robust debate.

One impressive example indicative of this intellectual eagerness occurred at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2009. It was a debate between religious studies professor Bart Erhman—an atheist—and conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza—a Christian. In an auditorium packed with roughly 1,400 onlookers, the two intellectuals confronted each other about the existence of God in view of suffering.

How can more universities, then, respond to this hunger for knowledge and facilitate constructive, respectful discourse on their campuses?

One proven remedy is to introduce centers similar to George’s James Madison Program. Another is to capitalize on the intrinsic interest students have in debates, which not only offer differing perspectives but have elements of drama and competition.

Student-run events often are the main source of civil debate on many campuses. There are outside organizations willing to fund or even partner with campus clubs to produce events that bring differing views to campus. The Ehrman-D’Souza debate, for example, was a joint operation between UNC’s Apologetics Club and the Fixed Point Foundation.

The College Democrats and Republicans at UNC-Chapel Hill host an annual debate. Perhaps the next step toward fostering civil discussion on campus could start with implementing a debate series—similar to the one hosted by the College Democrats and Republicans—but one that meets more regularly and is open to whoever is interested.

Or civil discourse could be incorporated into classes through debates between faculty members, as in this model proposed by the Martin Center. Or in-class debates could be between students themselves, perhaps in lieu of tests or writing papers. Learning how to adopt a position, defend it well, and learning the rules of oratorical engagement are baseline soft skills with which every student should be equipped.

Ultimately, civil and open inquiry shouldn’t be ushered to a corner of the university; it should be at the center of all learning that takes place. It is hard to imagine any reasonable person disagreeing with such a sentiment, yet civil discourse is still elusive on many campuses. It may very well be that not everybody has the “intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth” that George and West say is at the heart of a robust exchange of ideas.

But George can only be an ambassador of civil discourse. There is still one crucial prerequisite for civility to exist as the law of the campuses: those with the ultimate authority must have the will—and the resolve—to make it so.