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  • Reverend James Squire

What Washington Can Learn from Academia



One of the perks of being an alumnus of Yale and Duke is receiving weekly email newsletters on what is happening on campus and articles to stimulate new ways of seeing current issues. In a recent article that was sent to me there was an article from the Wall Street Journal (June 24, 2021) from a Duke Professor, John Rose, with the title “How I Liberated My College Classroom.” The subtext was “how I created a special seminar to discuss controversial issues freely, and the results were eye opening.” He taught classes in “Political Polarization” and “Conservatism.”


What he discovered was that students are very reluctant to voice their true opinions. He listed examples such as a student who didn’t know how she could be a liberal and be a Zionist. After January 6, he asked a class of 56 how many of their family and extended family voted for President Trump. He asked the 5O hands that went up to keep their hands up. He followed up with a question regarding how many thinks that their family voting was based in something unsavory such a racism or sexism. All but two hands came down.


They had engaging conversations about Critical Race Theory, Abortion, and every hot topic that one could engage. He set ground rules such as “if you believe that you are here to police other students views, you are in the wrong room.“ He wrote, “True engagement requires honesty. In an anonymous survey of my 110 students this spring 68% told me they self-censor on certain political topics even around good friends. That includes self-described conservative students, but also half of the liberals.”


At the end of the article, he offers this comment. “Turns out, their Trump supporting cousin wasn’t the exception. On the last day of class this term, several students thanked their counter parts for the gift of civil disagreement. Students told me of unlikely new friendships made. Some existing friendships, previously strained by political differences, were mended. All of this should give hope to those worried that polarization has made dialogue impossible in the classroom, It’s what students pine for.”


“Progressives, the power to make this a widespread reality on campus is in your hands: in doing so you’ll remain true to your tradition of liberalism. Conservatives, don’t write off the modern university; in continuing to support it, you’ll uphold your own tradition’s commitment to passing down wisdom.”


Now let me introduce you to my Ethics students and the rules of the road that we followed. We have had many that had attended Duke. I have to believe that my students were not self-censors because they were familiar and had lived with Rose’s approach.


I began each class by telling them that any topic that they brought up would be grist for our discussion, but it had to be in the public domain such as public news. They could not bring up a topic that they couldn’t apply what we were learning in the course to it. It was like a lab! You apply what you learn. School issues, for the most part, were off base. They could not mention a person by name such as a parent, fellow student, or teacher. Class could not be a gossip session.


Civil discourse had to be practiced at all times meaning no ad hominin arguments. No attacks could be made on a person who makes a comment. Only issues could be discussed. Since the classes tended to be large, students were encouraged to speak at least once every two classes to help our quiet students to be comfortable sharing their ideas.


They looked like deer in the headlights. Really? Yes, really! A paradox is established if the teacher/leader presents a strong style of caring about students. You teach a student not a subject. What happens in that safe environment is that student leaders emerged in the class representing conservative and liberal points of view. As Rose mentioned students love this kind of environment and they thrive it. They also follow the rules so that they can keep that environment in class. Trust was key and the pure enjoyment of doing things this way.


Now you didn’t really think that this blog was going to be about a class at Duke or EA. How much of what you read above is absent in the political arena in Washington. ALL OF IT!!!!!! Leaders aren’t sticking to the rule of law. Trump and many political leaders act out of creating fear and not respect for others. Republican leaders with a few exceptions continue to act in fear of Trump. Machiavelli, one of the first political philosophers wrote in his book on politics, the Prince, 500 years ago, “it is much safer to be feared than loved. Fear is the most effective leadership style.” It is at the heart of Trump’s playbook.


Do you think that our lawmakers are actually enjoying taking on difficult problems and applying what they know, whether conservative or liberal, to address the issues that are before them? We need two strong parties. Solving problems can be fun and exciting. Washington politicians and the likes of Green and Cruz and others don’t discuss policy. Their currency is attacks on the personhood of others. Issues that are critical such as the January 6 insurrection can’t be discussed and need to be.


Classes at Duke and EA turn over. Different teachers and different students are the norm. How many politicians are in the Capitol for money, power, and a lifetime job? Our founding fathers did not want people in office for a long time. What If they were evaluated on “civil discourse” as the most important criteria for reelection? If you think that civil discourse is not tough enough to work, try teaching ethics to teenagers or better yet being a member of that class. They would have little time for business as usual in Washington. Students would be use to the business of civil discourse.

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