Help students learn to dialogue, not (just) debate (opinion)

A recent piece by University of Virginia senior Emma Camp describing her experience of feeling silenced in campus conversations about controversial issues created a bit of a firestorm. Conservatives saw confirmation of their concerns about canceling culture on college campuses. Liberals saw hypocrisy in Camp’s simultaneous desire for open, free debate and her frustration at negative responses from those who disagreed with her views.

As a philosophy professor who has spent the past 15 years helping students navigate controversial conversations in the classroom, I saw a false dichotomy that commonly derails campus speech discussions. The belief seems to be that either students must feel free to speak their minds without concern for the impact of their statements, or Students are silenced by chilling environments that only allow views that match progressive orthodoxy.

Since 2017, I have taught a course that focuses on building skills for dialogue across difference. In this class, we engage in the space between consequence-free speech and chilling silence. This class always includes students with views from across the political spectrum; my Midwestern, Roman Catholic women’s college has considerable viewpoint diversity among students. We come together to build skills for discussing hard issues like abortion, immigration, guns, cancel culture and speech on campus.

In my experience, the key to creating a productive climate for hard conversations—rather than one marked by open hostility or chilling silence—is to engage in dialogue rather than debate. Whereas debate usually has a winner and a loser, dialogue offers an opportunity to learn why someone else believes what they do and to check your own views for clarity and consistency. Obviously, debate has its role in a democracy. But if we go straight to debate without developing the skills and virtues for dialogue, we are less likely to adequately scrutinize our own views or persuade others in the process. Debate is important, but without skills for dialogue, it can stifle the collaborative process of growing in understanding and solving problems as a community of learners.

It’s not a surprise that many jump directly to debate. Dialogue is harder work. It requires us to grow in listening and critical reasoning skills. It asks us to critique our own views, not just the views of others. It expects us to care about how our interlocutor is impacted by our views and try to imagine how we would feel if we had had her experiences. To do this hard work in our class, students develop the virtues necessary for good dialogue through practicing attention, empathy, humility, curiosity, intellectual responsibility and courage.

In the classroom, practicing attention means considering your own energy for the discussion and attending to the impact of your views on others. Practicing empathy requires listening at least as much as you talk. Practicing humility requires seeking weak spots in your own argument and being open to learning from others with different experiences. Practicing curiosity means asking questions that help you connect the dots between your interlocutor’s views and her values ​​and experiences. It also means seeking out new information to strengthen or revise your own view. Practicing intellectual responsibility means evaluating news sources for bias and misinformation and seeking information from a broad range of sources as you evaluate a view. Practicing courage means speaking up when something matters to you, even if your view happens to be an outlier in a particular setting.

With these virtues in play, the classroom climate can be one where students feel comfortable testing out, revising and strengthening views in collaboration with others. In such a climate, other participants won’t shame someone for testing out a particular view but will offer feedback and sometimes share strong feelings that might be uncomfortable for the person who shared the view. Dialogue entails working together through these exchanges. If students are invested in the project of developing virtues described above, then the community can have these hard conversations collaboratively. Such a space will not be free from consequences, but it will also not be silencing. As others have argued here and here, occasional self-censorship in a supportive learning community may be the appropriate result of learning how to dialogue attentively and productively.

By helping students develop virtues for good dialogue, we prepare them with valuable life and career skills and nurture a challenging but supportive campus climate. But there are at least two additional benefits to this approach. First, emphasizing dialogue over debate takes advantage of what is unique about the college experience: the opportunity to participate in an environment where community members with diverse beliefs and backgrounds are oriented toward the goal of learning together. Higher education, if it is made accessible to all, can offer a space that is safe even as it provokes productive discomfort that is simultaneously destabilizing and supportive.

Second, if students identify with the project of developing virtues for good dialogue, we may help to address certain disparities among students who have different experiences. For a student (or faculty member) who has always been listened to and who is used to having their experiences taken as authoritative, it will likely be difficult but important to work on developing humility and empathy. This person may find they grow when listening more and speaking less. For a member of the community who has been marginalized, space is opened up to center their experience. Practicing attention to self and others, some will find that they lack the emotional energy for particular conversations. In this case, additional work will be done by members of the community whose energy hasn’t been drained by circumstances outside their control. If done well, this approach naturally distributes the labor of creating productive communities in a way that doesn’t overburden those who have already had to bear disproportionate burdens. In other words, practicing the virtues for good dialogue will naturally require more of those who have had it the easiest.

So, in the ongoing discussion of campus climate, rather than debate whether we must choose between free speech without consequences or a chilling culture of silence, let’s reject both of these false choices. Rather, let’s invest in supporting students and faculty as they practice the skills and virtues for good dialogue.

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