Why encouraging civil discourse on campus is so important, even when it’s ‘messy’

Providing strong forums and structures to discuss tough topics is part of building ‘college-level skills'
By: | November 1, 2021
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Civic engagement is not always pretty; not always tidy. It can be politically charged. Emotional. College leaders who decide they want to boost it on campus—through discussions and events—should be prepared for opposing viewpoints and wide-ranging reactions.

Lara Schwartz

Lara Schwartz, lecturer and Director of American University’s Project on Civil Discourse, says that open dialogue and allowing for formative give-and-take can be beneficial to both institutions and the students they serve.

“Colleges are supposed to exist to help people get good at new college-level skills, and one of them is civic engagement,” Schwartz says. “Colleges are becoming more interested in finding ways to give students those kinds of opportunities. My hope is that they won’t feel cowed by the movements to restrict teaching about diversity, equity or racial justice or enact speech regulations that punish students for counter-protest because those are a part of our freedom.”

What is productive is inviting the forums and conversations that embrace all voices. Limiting free speech and dialogue—or simply ignoring unpopular views—runs almost counter to the college experience.

“True civil discourse doesn’t look just like what we would call mere politeness,” says Schwartz, a former lawyer and lobbyist who also specializes in constitutional law and civil rights. “Civil discourse could include shouting. Because injustice might make you shout, or not being heard might require shouting to the point that you’re heard. It isn’t just speaking in a way that either people in power, or people you know, in rarefied spaces would find appropriate and comfortable. The Boston Tea Party wasn’t polite. Nat Turner’s rebellion wasn’t polite. And in the eyes and ears of the majority of white Americans at the time, Martin Luther King’s work wasn’t polite. Sometimes, particularly in pursuit of justice, civil discourse can be messy or loud or emotional.”


Read more from UB: How one president says colleges can improve civil dialogue


According to a study done by American University and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), civic engagement ranked low among top priorities at 140 institutions. This despite calls for social and racial justice, more equity for underserved populations and increasing political tensions that also exist on their campuses.

Schwartz’s Project on Civil Discourse addresses that need head-on. The Project helps train undergraduates to be dialogue facilitators and assists professors with concepts it can use to address some of the hard questions that exist on campus: “Do your professors’ politics matter? How should universities deal with things like junk science and disinformation? How does the way that we use language affect the public policy that we make?”

In addition, it offers a resource called Building My Voice to help model productive conversations and hosts events that bring fractured groups together—not as a red vs. blue debate—but to learn to approach dialogue and tough questions in a sound manner. “I talk to faculty and administrators about how the intersection of respectfulness, equity, mutual kindness and the robust protection for the exchange of ideas that can arise out of the classroom and campus,” Schwartz says.

Trust and understanding

One of the overarching themes for creating an environment of effective civil dialogue is building trust. “We have to build that trust with students and show them the ways in which college is actually a place where we have more capacity to have these challenging conversations,” Schwartz says.

Getting there is the tricky part. Higher education institutions can’t simply assume that students—who come from very divergent backgrounds—have the ability or knowledge to handle these discussions as they enter college as 17- and 18-year-olds.

“When people say, discourse on campus isn’t as good as it could be, my thought is, that could be right. But this is a question of preparedness,” says Schwartz, who co-authored a book called “How to College: What to Know Before You Go (And When You’re There)” aimed at college students. “We just can’t expect students to show up at college well-versed in how to have these sort of robust, important conversations about tough issues any more than we can expect them to show up understanding how to write a doctoral thesis or use their own health insurance. It’s a college-level skill. At the college level, we often don’t talk to students about what it is that we want or what we’re expecting.

“More of us Americans are living in hyperpolarized counties, meaning you could come to college having had the complete dominant viewpoint in your high school—everybody wanted to make America great again—then you got to college in the Bluest city in your state, and that’s by no means was the majority view. Many African American students arrive on college campuses having attended majority-Black schools, and are in a predominantly white institution with 5% Black-tenured faculty.”

Colleges not only must know their populations—especially incoming students—but must provide the outlets and mechanisms to express their thoughts. So how do they facilitate the difficult conversations and build trust?

“[Institutions} should really double down on figuring out creative, exciting and meaningful ways to help students explore and perfect their civic engagement skills, just as they get to explore their professionalism in internship classes or their interest in the world in study abroad,” she says. “Instead of saying, hey, we want to clamp down on the students who are making noise about racism or other justice issues on campus, say we have passionate people. We want to give tools to speak up, whether it is through protest or governance, and really create campuses where that is valued.”

One of the best ways is to avoid “yes” or “no” questions on a tough topic, but instead offer more constructive ways to foster shared inquiry and allow students to take ownership for learning.

“Let’s practice our research methods, our information literacy methods and our scientific methods,” Schwartz says. “It’s exactly what college is about. It’s about the curating and probing of information and claims and ideas, with a series of tools that are neutral in that they don’t have a party associated with them. That’s the challenge of discourse in college—both breaking away from the narrowness of a partisan conversation and understanding that we actually have a smaller universe of discourse than, say, YouTube.”