In January 2017, two professors representing the Nichols College political science and psychology programs led 23 students on a two-week immersion experience in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Students were required to register for the course prior to Election Day 2016, thus ensuring they would not know the outcome of the national election. The theme: Can we elevate the discourse? Our discussions were framed by the documentary, Bring It to The Table, which encourages Americans to stop bickering about politics, examine their own assumptions, and truly engage in civil discourse to help move forward our democracy.
Building on the momentum of this program, we worked with politicians, activists, and political insiders at the state and local level in Massachusetts to offer an interdisciplinary course, “All Politics is Local,” as a special topic in Political Science and Management this semester.
Students need to be taught (and not simply exposed to or asked to) use civil discourse, which means giving them both a theoretical basis of the concept and practical tools for using it. In this structured classroom setting, our students have the opportunity to undertake a serious exchange of views, focus on the issues rather than on the individual(s) espousing them, defend their interpretations using verified information, and thoughtfully listen to what others say.
This exchange does not simply take place among students and professors. The course is designed to be experiential - including a range of guest speakers, panels, and site visits. Students are exposed to examples of politicians and public officials who seek compromise and are working to improve the lives of those living in Massachusetts and beyond. One of the best examples was a recent visit with Massachusetts State Senators Ryan Fattman (R) and Eric Lesser (D). As co-chairs of the Massachusetts Millennial Engagement Initiative, both legislators emphasized the need for civil discourse in a functioning democracy, and modeled the respectful forms of discourse and of civic engagement that we, as professors, are consistently trying to teach. They truly represent the premise that - in a country historically anchored in compromise and diversity, and good faith - civil discourse should flourish.
According to a poll (Allegheny College 2010), 44 percent of the 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed identified higher education as the most pivotal player to restore civility (30 percent of those above age 65 agreed). This is an opportunity that those of us in higher education cannot afford to ignore.
- Erika Cornelius Smith, Ph.D., is assistant professor of political science and international business, and chair of the Political Science Program at Nichols College, Dudley.