Teaching Students Civil Dialogue in a Culture Hostile to Free Speech

It can be disheartening to witness how college culture has become inhospitable to viewpoints that fall outside of the ideological mainstream.

For example, a March 2020 report by three professors at UNC-Chapel Hill revealed that UNC students across the political spectrum, but particularly conservative students, sometimes engage in self-censorship for fear of what others may do or think.

The professors also found that 25 percent of students on campus support shutting down speakers with whom they disagree. However, the shutting-down of speakers isn’t the main affront to free inquiry on college campuses.

Often, the more pressing problem is that students have few opportunities to engage constructively with people who think differently than they do.

An encouraging sign, however, is that there is a renewed effort among some higher education leaders to teach students about the importance of free speech and how to participate in respectful dialogue.

One of those efforts is UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program for Public Discourse. The program is housed in the College of Arts and Sciences and includes faculty from across the university. Its mission is to support a strong culture of debate and deliberation at UNC through curricular and extracurricular programs.

Among other core beliefs, the program is committed to the idea that “the proper functioning of the university requires a commitment to open, frank, respectful, and productive debate.”

The Martin Center spoke with the program’s faculty director, professor Sarah Treul, to learn more about the program and how it contributes to students’ education. Treul is an associate professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill and specializes in American political institutions, with an emphasis on Congress and the courts. This transcription has been edited for clarity and length.

To get started, could you provide a brief history of the Program for Public Discourse? When was it established and what was the rationale for founding the program? How does it contribute to the mission of higher education, particularly a liberal arts education? 

The program started in 2019, so just last year, and came about as the result of the College of Arts and Sciences’ new Ideas in Action general education curriculum, slated to begin next fall. One ambition of this new curriculum is to re-center the liberal arts education on objectives that extend beyond a focus on just careers and jobs. The pedagogical approach of the new curriculum is to prepare students to be effective, successful thinkers—and also citizens—by developing flexible “capacities” that cross disciplines and domains of knowledge.

The combination of this curriculum and a broader recognition by faculty on campus that our students desire a framework for conversation and deliberation led to the development of the program.

Through its emphasis on incorporating structured deliberation in the classroom, and also by showcasing debate and respect for alternative points and opinions in our public events, the Program for Public Discourse will give students the necessary skills to engage with the most pressing questions facing society. Oftentimes, these pressing questions are of course controversial, which is where giving them a framework for deliberation becomes so important.

So to this end, the main objectives of our program are really to support the implementation of pedagogical methods that increase our students’ engagement, their critical thinking skills, and also probably more importantly, to foster civil deliberation and therefore increase civic engagement. We’re really seeking to encourage our students to engage with disagreements, recognizing that they’re going to exist, and also engage with those with disagreements across a full range of issues that arise in the university and in the broader society. This is not just a program in one department or on one topic, it really is a cross-disciplinary initiative.

You also asked how this program contributes specifically to a liberal arts education, and I really believe that this program is at the core and at the center of a liberal arts education—as our mission is to build students’ ability and their desire to debate and deliberate. It will enable them to become better citizens, better civic leaders, and stewards of our democracy.

Thinking about a liberal arts education, we’re trying to develop these well-rounded students—and our program is focused on that. Our goal is that we don’t just want to prepare students to make a living, to have a job, to even have a career; we want them to be contributors to public life.

Now that it’s up and running, tell us about the program’s activities. How do students and faculty members get involved with the program? What kind of activities does the program host? 

I’ll start by talking a little bit about our public events. Our events are intended to model this constructive public discourse. I think this word “constructive” is really important here so I want to build on it a little bit.

By “constructive,” we don’t mean a dialogue where everybody necessarily reaches consensus or agreement at the end. Rather, we mean a dialogue and a conversation in which participants are able to share their reasoning on important and contentious issues and have their ideas challenged by those who might think differently.

This is incredibly important to our mission. This kind of dialogue requires a certain number of skills: It requires the courage to disagree with others, the ability to listen carefully to different perspectives, and the ability to explain one’s own position thoughtfully and carefully.

We as American citizens often don’t have many opportunities to develop these skills because we’re hesitant to talk about these contentious issues. We’re especially hesitant to talk about contentious issues when we know someone disagrees with us. The political debates we see on television or wherever else end up relying on mostly partisan talking points and that’s not what we’re here to do. We want to ensure that all UNC students are able to support their positions, whatever they may be, with facts and talk about the values that underpin those positions.

We plan to have several events every semester; they’re open to the public, and of course, [we’re] trying to boost the number of students who attend these events. [In the events,] leading scholars, public intellectuals, and practitioners discuss important issues. It could be an issue like free speech, or it could be an event on the government’s response to COVID-19. All of these issues are going to bring in people that have a variety of different perspectives on the main theme that we’re talking about.

Essentially, we’re committed to ensuring that both liberal and conservative voices are part of these conversations. The world, our debate, our deliberation, and our democracy are better when we hear from different sides.

We believe that good arguments can, at least in some cases, also change minds. And so we anticipate that the people who attend our events may end up reconsidering some of their cherished beliefs or things they thought they held near and dear but didn’t really have the reasoning behind why they had those beliefs.

In other cases, however, exposure to dissenting voices may encourage audience members to make better arguments in defense of their own beliefs that they’ve held onto maybe for a long time.

Both of these things can improve the quality of public discourse. It will lead to a more informed civic engagement. We also hope that our events will highlight the fact that people who adhere to different ideologies may also share some areas of agreement and that it’s often possible to collaborate with people you disagree with. Of course, no single event is going to change American public discourse, but we hope that our events will help students see the benefits of deliberative and communicative skills and those are the ones that we are trying to encourage in our student body.

We hope that our events will help students see the benefits of deliberative and communicative skills.

And then if we move to the curriculum side—it’s not just curricular, it’s also other activities that we’re sponsoring on campus that have a student focus. While it’s important to expose students to a variety of perspectives through our events, it’s also equally vital that we provide students the necessary skill-set to communicate their own perspectives effectively.

Our curricular component is designed to empower students with deliberative competence. Like any craft, the art of rhetoric requires constant cultivation: Students need to consistently practice public discourse to learn what works and what does not and to sharpen their skills and apply them to new situations—including situations that we cannot yet predict. Our program is focused on the belief that this robust deliberation is a precondition to democratic culture.

Only by teaching our students to engage in this deliberative practice do we prepare our students to be active civic agents and to ensure the continuation, in many ways, of American democracy. So, our view that a democracy requires a commitment to democratic citizenship and that democratic citizenship is practiced largely, if not primarily, through public deliberation—by engaging in public debate our students begin to embody one of their most important duties as democratic citizens.

And while this diversity of opinion is important for democracy, and on a college campus in particular, the need doesn’t stop there. Our students also have to learn how to identify the modes of reasoning that inform their viewpoints and the viewpoints of their opponents, in an effort to evaluate their own positions and construct more compelling arguments in the future.

All that being said, public communication is not an end in itself.

Public communication often exposes how deep some of our differences really are. Only by learning to communicate more effectively can we begin to face the challenges and disagreements we share as a public. To this end, our executive director who came on board this summer, Kevin Marinelli, offers workshops for our faculty who want to learn some of these methods and incorporate them into their own classrooms.

Outside of the classroom, we’ve created other innovative ways for our students to practice public deliberation. We’ve created a fellows program where students in the program can learn the practice of rhetorical writing by producing a periodical. We’re also in the beginning stages of launching several other initiatives, including reading groups where we’ll focus on one book and our executive director will lead the students through a discussion of that book. A program that we’re calling “speakeasy,” which we envision as a collaborative space for reflection and inquiry. And also a speech competition where students can practice some of the rhetorical skills on a contentious topic of the day.

All these events will tackle these contentious issues. But the goal is to provide our students with the skills to tackle them in a way that is thoughtful, where participants are able to share their reasoning about important and contentious issues and have those ideas intelligently challenged by their peers or by people in general who might think differently from them.

Are events well-attended? What kind of feedback have participants provided?

Last year, the program in its inaugural year held three events and each drew about 100 people. Our event on impeachment in the fall was probably the best attended, [it was] advertised to a wide public. People came from outside of campus to attend the event. This year, we’ve already hosted two: One was in July on COVID-19, which focused on the economic impact, civil liberties, and also public health. And we’ve also hosted an event [in September], a conversation with professors Robert George and Cornel West on how to foster dialogue and friendships across the aisle, and this was moderated by Thomas Chatterton Williams.

I’m really proud of the transition we’ve made, as a program, to remote and virtual events—this is a challenge for everyone—and I think we’ve done a really great job. Both of these two remote events that I’ve just mentioned have drawn nearly 500 attendees and we’ve had close to 800 registrants for these events. We’re taking advantage of the fact that, in the virtual environment, we hope to reach even more people; people can tune in from everywhere, you don’t have to be physically in Chapel Hill now to attend our events.

We’re also recording the events and this makes them available afterwards. We think it’s not only useful for reaching a broader audience to record them, but also has the advantage of allowing our events to be used in the future. My hope would be that I could pinpoint particular faculty who might have an interest in an event or an event might fit their class particularly well.

With our next event called “Free Speech on Campus,” we are literally bringing the speakers into virtual classrooms. So, in addition to the large scale public event— where again I’m shooting for 500 attendees if we can— we’re also going to have the three different speakers speak individually to classrooms or to other small groups on days following the event. The ideal hope is: People can watch the public event and then have a more personal and intimate conversation, hopefully utilizing some of those deliberative skills that we’re practicing and engaging in, in these smaller group settings. So, we’re doing our best to take advantage of the virtual environment. I’m excited about what we’re seeing as a result of that so far.

Our program is focused on the belief that this robust deliberation is a precondition to democratic culture.

Along those same lines, you asked about feedback, and I think the feedback for our events has been overwhelmingly positive, which I think speaks to this underlying need for a program like this. There are plenty of people who have commented and watched our events and said “this is so wonderful, this is exactly what American democracy needs, it’s exactly what our political conversations need.” I think we’re fulfilling that need and also there’s a lot riding on our shoulders, and there’s a lot of hope for this program and I certainly hope to fulfill that hope.

This fall semester, the program hosted a conversation between two professors, Robert George and Cornel West. The two disagree a great deal on politics but are nevertheless able to have fruitful discussions and are good friends. Could you speak a bit about how modeling civil discourse is valuable for students? 

I know I’ve touched on this a little bit already, but as you’ve said, our events are intended to model this constructive civil discourse. I see this being valuable to our students in two very interrelated ways. This first is simple exposure, we want to expose our students to a variety of perspectives through our public events. We want to amplify perspectives that often don’t get a lot of attention at UNC. For example, George and West both spoke of the role of faith in shaping their political commitments.

Our students, and really it’s the public more broadly, are often hesitant to talk about contentious issues with people they know disagree with them. By exposing our students to prominent speakers or public intellectuals who hold different and sometimes divergent viewpoints, and that demonstrate that they can have and carry on a civil dialogue, we’re really showcasing how civil discourse can lead to a more informed civil engagement.

And I think this is important: We don’t always see this in our media, in our public and political discourse, when it comes to debates, etc. It really is a breath of fresh air for a lot of our students to step back and say “Oh, this can be done, we can do this in a civil way and this—seeing it—actually makes me want to engage and actually want to participate.” So that is certainly an important part: just raw exposure.

But it’s not just the exposure of ideas, but it’s also important how these ideas are being discussed and deliberated.

We really want our students to experience firsthand that constructive dialogue does require skills that need to be practiced. This kind of dialogue requires the courage to disagree with others, the ability to listen carefully to what it is the other side is saying. And also the ability to factually establish and explain one’s own position. I think professors West and George are experts in this craft. And so we hope that this event and others help our students see the benefits of deliberation and communication and then want to be engaged with our program because this is really what we’re advocating for.

How has the program and its work been received by the wider campus community? 

I would say that, as with any new program, its development and also its longevity are really first and foremost going to depend on trust. My colleagues and I have worked really hard to foster that trust starting last year. We spoke before the faculty council, we held a series of roundtables with the dean of the college to listen to a diverse group of faculty.

Our executive director, Kevin Marinelli, is also really committed to this trust-building. He’s making an effort to meet with department chairs, listen to their ideas and learn how we can best facilitate the excellent work that many of them are already doing in this area of deliberation. I think we’re laying a very nice groundwork. The feedback I’ve gotten this year and the feedback from our first year has been overwhelmingly positive.

I always think in terms of gardening, there’s a saying in gardening that maybe you’re familiar with or some of the audience is: in the first year when you plant something new, it sleeps. And then in the next year it creeps. And then in the third year, it leaps. Not to say that I think the first year that we were sleeping or this year we’re just creeping along, but I really think the establishment of a program or anything new does take time.

I think we’re laying a really good foundation and much of this is in the framework of trust-building. I think our faculty are supportive of the program, they’re seeing what it is that we’re trying to do, and I look forward to working with our faculty in the future.

Are there any future plans to expand the program’s work?

I think we’re already doing that; I think we’re well on our way to expanding the program. We’ll host more public events this year than we did last year. Our curricular programming is coming to fruition, and students, faculty, and the public seem to be paying attention. I think we have a lot to offer UNC and the public and I look forward to engaging with a wide array of people and the viewpoints that are present on our campus and the broader public as we move forward. I really think we’re ahead of schedule and I think our future is really bright as a program.

The full video interview with professor Sarah Treul can be viewed here.

Shannon Watkins is senior writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.