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Are We Part of the Problem?

What if the norm for college students was thoughtful, polite, courageous and reflective engagement when faced with disagreement both inside and outside the classroom? What if this isn’t the norm and what if we’re part of the problem? How can we help our students to disagree without being disagreeable?

Our students watch us closely; many admire and seek to emulate us. This has recently engendered in me a heightened sense of responsibility for what I/we model to our students when it comes to the issues that mean the most to us.

We need to think about some of those issues for a moment and how we address them in the classroom. Do we communicate (either subtly or overtly) that those who disagree with us are idiots? If so, then are we not putting our (authoritative) stamp of approval on the very Facebook culture which we have come to view with both surprise and dismay? But… what if we do it with wit, flair, and facts?  Well, then perhaps we’ll turn our classrooms into but the fact of the matter is that people model what they experience, from people they admire; often times that’s us.

I remember well my own college days and the evangelical fervor with which my professors espoused their views and poured contempt on the opposition. We (their students) took it all in, the good and the bad, and we created a world where kind, thoughtful discourse has become the exception rather than the rule. It would be unfair to lay this all at the feet of our institutions of higher learning, but I think we are complicit in the world we have helped create. We are, after all, the curators of what is (effectively) accepted as “knowledge” and must own up to our part in this.

If there is one service that we in higher learning can do for our students (and country) today, it is to model civil, respectful disagreement before our students. We can begin by admitting  (to ourselves) the fearsome responsibility that comes with having the opposition right in the room with us and by realizing that they are, by definition, outnumbered —simply because of who we are in their eyes. Our supporters are in the room too. The lessons they take away by watching us may be even more important than the lessons they take away from our content.



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