Several recent developments create an opportunity for Davidson College to launch an initiative focused on researching, teaching, and enacting deliberative practices that support constructive disagreements in the classroom, on campus, and within the broader community. These developments include the contemporary decline in cooperative public discourse, the increasing polarization of national politics both in the United States and elsewhere, continuing controversy surrounding the nature of public speech on college campuses, a growing interest in facilitating dialogue regarding difficult issues in classrooms, and the recent publication of Davidson’s Academic Strategic Plan.
Clearly, the state of contemporary discourse has eroded such that we rarely—if ever—witness real deliberation modeled by politicians and civic leaders. Public persuasion is now reduced to winning at any cost. This form of rhetorical warfare has moved from the airwaves, the campaign trail, and our legislative bodies to our colleges and universities, where students, administrators, faculty, and outsiders battle with one another—both literally and figuratively—over the rights and responsibilities of invited speakers with controversial views.
And so our students and fellow citizens do not have examples of effective deliberation, even though it is a vital activity of both citizenship and the human condition more generally. Discussion-based classes, well-meaning and central to forming students’ public personae, are often failed sites of open exchange, with students misreading disagreement as an anxious scene of self-assertion. Political conversations frequently suffer the same fate.
We are thus ill-equipped and unprepared to translate into productive public discourse the intense emotions and frustrations that we feel regarding recent political, social, and economic developments. Whether we are most concerned about the impeachment of a sitting president, the response to the coronavirus, the management of a faltering economy, the problem of police brutality and systemic racism, or any one of the many other urgent issues facing society, we often we feel we lack the skills and spaces to both effectively express those concerns and truly listen to the concerns of others.
In light of these dynamics, Davidson faculty are recognizing the need to foster more democratic deliberation in their classrooms. Davidson already infuses its curriculum with opportunities for learning the arts of open inquiry with strategies for inclusive and inventive argument and techniques for distributing new knowledge to diverse audiences. These are featured in Davidson’s required course in written argument and extend throughout the curriculum, in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.
These skills of argument are typically steeped in discipline-specific interests and traditions so that students tend to disassociate intellectual discourse from the arguments they witness in public and civic spheres. But class discussions can model the more egalitarian and democratic deliberations that citizens carry out. What happens among peers in deliberation-involved classrooms has the potential to influence our students’ future participation in difficult conversations in professional and public life.
Fortuitously, Davidson’s new Academic Strategic Plan emphasizes the value of enabling students, faculty, and staff to effectively “deliberate and dialogue across differences.” This mandate is supported by other keywords such as reflection, risk-taking and innovation—critical dispositions in our present era where committed citizens will require courage and creativity. It is also reflected in the historical orientation of liberal arts college, and Davidson in particular, towards preparing their students for lives of leadership and service.
As potential leaders in their communities, both now and in the future, Davidson students will likely find themselves in the midst of sharp disagreements with fellow co-workers and citizens and be expected to navigate differences. Given their likely complexity, these disagreements will require new forms of listening, non-combative airing of contrasting positions, and creative negotiations.
Davidson’s Statement of Purpose has direct relevance to this initiative, as it calls for the College to provide “a range of opportunities for…civil debate…that enrich mind and spirit, and “teach all students to think clearly, to make relevant and valid judgments, to discriminate among values, and to communicate freely with others in the realm of ideas.” Practiced at Davidson, these skills will prepare students to lead soundly, with discipline, personal humility and democratic purpose.
To do so, they will require what Danielle Allen has called “participatory readiness,” a predisposition to collective action tempered by prudence, mutual respect, and generosity. This is one of our “humane instincts” that can be developed through the observation of and practice of deliberative dialogue. These techniques include not only forestalling premature conclusions and remaining open to new pathways of thought and action but also expressing and grappling with the emotions and stories that often generate ideas and motivate revised understandings.
The Deliberative Citizenship Initiative is designed to foster such participatory readiness and strongly intersects with Davidson’s strong traditions of community service, political action, and student leadership. Davidson is blessed with a wide range of active student organizations, administrative offices, and local community organizations that already are working on related efforts to engage the difficult issues of our time (to learn more about these organizations, click here).
These efforts create a rich extracurricular network that the Deliberative Citizenship Initiative is designed to complement and support, given that each of these groups values constructive dialogue in the face of difference. Indeed, we are fortunate to already have a strong commitment to active and engaged dialogue on campus.
These are the many reasons why deliberative citizenship is particularly relevant to Davidson College and the current moment; from the local to the national level, it is clear that the time is now for more and better engagement on the issues that divide us.
If you are interested in learning more about who is involved in the DCI, click here.