By John Leiner, DCI Fellow
It has been hard not to look at the calendar and recognize that the Class of 2021 has such little time—now less than three weeks—left until we graduate as Davidson College alumni. Many conversations have been had since August about what our class has missed out on during our senior year. The lack of socializing and spending time with our friends with whom we’ve grown so close has been especially frustrating. And, as a transfer student, I’ve thought about how much I would have loved to have spent more than 2 ¼ years on this beautiful campus.
To be sure, my friends have expressed their condolences for my abbreviated Davidson experience. Sometimes I wish I had spent my first year at Davidson—enjoying Frolics at least once would have been a treat. However, in many ways, my time not at Davidson is what led me here as a sophomore, and I try not to lose sight of that. I spent my first year at another small, academically rigorous liberal arts college. A great school, but not the best fit for me, in part because of what I felt was groupthink in the classroom and a lack of political-ideological diversity in the campus community.
Davidson felt different from the get-go. I recall my political philosophy professor early on during the fall of my sophomore year giving a short history lesson related to Aristophanes’ The Clouds. It struck me how the theme of the discussion could have been taboo, as it related to a practice common among Athenian philosophers that would be frowned upon today. There wasn’t anything particularly unique about the conversation.
Yet it struck me that we were having this discussion without anyone making virtue-signaling remarks about this practice having no place in today’s society. That we were discussing something antiquated was obvious. The class discussion was indeed refreshing, as we recognized that our goal in this particular moment was not to make political statements and apply our own values to the text but to understand why the practice mattered in the context of The Clouds. We needed to first “listen” to the text and its author before concluding anything about it.
It’s possible that I would have had a similar discussion were I taking the class at my previous college. I do know, though, that during my three years as a Davidson student the general openness of my peers towards discussing ‘touchy’ subjects, considering historical context, and acknowledging opposing viewpoints has not wavered. With this in mind, I strongly believe that class discussion at Davidson can be deliberative, insofar as it can encourage all participants to meaningfully and sincerely participate. Considering diverse perspectives and sharing ideas with those we disagree with can be possible in the classroom provided that campus culture is ‘ripe for’ deliberation. I believe that Davidson’s is.
From what I’ve learned as a DCI Fellow, the first step towards creating a deliberative culture in the classroom would likely be acknowledging that opposing views exist. In deliberative contexts, we call this ‘setting the scene,’ and I have certainly witnessed this step here at Davidson. Facilitators (professors) work with deliberators (students) to clarify uncertainties and points of dispute about the topic of deliberation. Prior to class discussion, my professors have often introduced relevant questions and points of contention before opening the floor.
Next, the professor invites students to begin the conversation. One student begins by offering a perspective or claim about the topic of discussion, perhaps using an “I” statement. This process continues until each student gives general remarks about their position. What differentiates a standard class discussion from a deeper deliberative experience are the next four steps. The first occurs when students are encouraged to clarify the assumptions, reasons and evidence underlying their positions. The professor may point out, for example, how students have reached similar conclusions based on different premises or why certain perspectives were not brought forth for discussion. They might also ask students to consider what implicit assumptions and biases have informed their ideas during a deliberation. This encourages everyone to think about the values or principles that underlie their beliefs, which they perhaps share with their classmates even if they disagree about the issue on the surface.
The next step involves students actively engaging and evaluating their own and each other’s reasons and evidence. The penultimate step comes when they begin to generate new ideas that transcend their original conceptions and understandings of the topic at hand. And the final step towards creating a deliberative classroom encourages reflection about the deliberation itself and an assessment of how it went, what was discovered, and what is left to be explored.
If students are not forthcoming about their perspective or choose to provide a different perspective from their honest opinion, the professor may not always recognize which perspectives are not being expressed in the deliberation. There may be many points of contention that are not discussed, after all. As Fellows, we’ve remarked time and again about how hard it is to incorporate all perspectives into our D Teams. How do we bring into the discussion those who are apprehensive about ‘being in the minority?’
There is no obvious solution to this puzzle. I do know, however, that establishing conversation agreements is key for the comfortability of deliberators—whether inside or outside of the classroom. If students come into the deliberation having read these guidelines, such as “critique the idea we disagree with, not the person expressing it” or “respect the confidentiality of the discussion,” then they may become more confident that their peers will respect their viewpoint. This could, in theory, allow students to be more open in their deliberations.
While talking across our many divides may seem daunting, we have more experience with at least some of the necessary components than we may realize. For example, “dialogues” in which Davidson classmates discuss weighty issues related to social justice often involve establishing conversation guidelines beforehand to assure everyone’s openness and honesty during the discussion. Furthermore, one of my many takeaways from Davidson is that I have learned to interrogate and question my assumptions, values and perspectives. And no substantive discussion I’ve had here has ever ended without formative reflection. So in many ways, Davidson is ‘ripe for’ deliberation, as components of the deliberative process are already part of how we study, learn, and grow as students here. I’m grateful for that, and I’m hopeful that Davidson can build on these foundations to build an even more deliberative culture in the future.