• November 24, 2014

Yearning for Civil Discourse? Listen to Your Students

Civility has had a bad run of luck lately. Congressional infighting drove America to the brink of national default, triggering a first-ever downgrade in the country's credit rating. Rising presidential contenders boasted openly about their unwillingness to compromise. And even National Football League owners had to stop talking to their own players until their lawyers were done fighting.

Clearly, the time has come for the higher-education community to strengthen our efforts to create environments that foster civil discourse and nurture the remarkable tendency of today's twenty-somethings to choose consensus and collaboration over posturing and brinksmanship.

Forty years ago, students went to college ready to march and protest their way to a more progressive society. Today, students still skew progressive, but they consider soapboxes and megaphones presumptuous. As Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais described in their 2008 book Millennial Makeover, students today "feel that the opinion of each member of a group carries equal weight. ... Having learned to search for expertise on the Net, Millennials tend not to believe in the authority of a few elite experts. Instead, they place their faith in the wisdom that comes from the combined opinions of all the ... members of a network."

Last summer, students from 40 colleges and universities gathered at the Hillel Institute at Washington University in St. Louis to discuss the need to ask big questions and listen to peers' answers. As one student explained, "Civil discourse provides an opportunity to talk about what's important and to keep building that common language, one that can move past the superficial differences, to describe that deeper sameness." If you thought that young people just share the intimate details of their personal lives, that's not true. They also regularly share information, power, and authority.

That students have become society's voice of reason bodes well for the future of civil discourse, but it hardly guarantees it. So here are three nonpolitical, fairly budget-neutral ways to keep today's deliberative and inclusive twenty-somethings from becoming tomorrow's dogmatic, intransigent thirty-somethings.

First, U.S. News & World Report should create a "civil discourse" metric to rate colleges and universities on the maturity of their controversial conversations. For decades, the college campus has been a microcosm for every social and political issue, from tax policy to gay rights to Afghanistan to Israel. Which colleges help students learn how to argue these issues constructively? Which just drive the student advocates further into their corners, and turn the rest of the student body off to "politics" generally? With a record-breaking 68 percent of high-school graduates now enrolling in colleges and universities, higher education has become the last great unifying experience for American youth. Parents and policy makers alike should know which campuses are nurturing the kind of citizenship and leadership we'll appreciate when this new generation is running the country.

Second, there should be a movement to transform the perception of "student life" from a collection of clubs and activities to the primary component of an institution that teaches and fosters civil engagement. This will not only improve our civility quotient, it will increase our competitiveness. In time, other nations may well match or surpass American universities' ability to conduct ground-breaking research, but what can make our institutions of higher learning the envy of the world in future years are the skills required for civil dialogue, often learned by participating in sports teams, bands, social organizations, and volunteer work. As budgets get leaner, there will be a stronger push to sideline these extracurricular activities, but such pursuits are the great, unique added value of university life.

Finally, lest we waste precious time waiting for today's students to gain "experience," employers in the private, public, and social sectors should aggressively try to hire and engage young people, especially on governing boards. Sure, young folks can help build an online presence, but they also know how to build community. As Winograd and Hais point out, being digital natives has made this generation of students fluent not just in Facebook, but in the skill of recognizing common passions and steering those passions toward constructive results. Indeed, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, considers her finest advice to be: "Hire recent college graduates." Facebook hardly needs more 21st-century technical skill; Sandberg is talking about 21st-century community building.

We cannot afford to wait 15 or 20 years for political representatives who will constructively solve problems, but we also can't afford to squander the opportunity to ensure that our next generation will be more inclined to do so. As the namesake of our organization asked 2,000 years ago, "If not now, when?" It's the nature of students today to listen and engage; let's nurture that inclination for their future's sake.

Wayne Firestone is president of Hillel, a global network of Jewish-student organizations on college campuses.

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