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In Pursuit of Civil Discourse in the Academy

In Pursuit of Civil Discourse in the Academy
By Richard B. Pierce

I believe in civil discourse. I believe in the value that comes from intellectual engagement with thoughtful people. I believe the university is the place for such an engagement. I believe that we are failing that mission.

In a society that is increasingly dominated by those that immediately cover themselves with an ideological shroud, the academy must be the battleground of ideas. We must not let the pundits’ shouted, sarcastic invective define the model for the discourse of issues as relevant as politics or as personal as race. Sadly, it is perhaps not surprising that those in the academy too frequently display symptoms of intellectual intolerance. I recall a time, not long ago, when I led a relative on a tour of my campus. We came upon a pair of faculty members in heated debate, each listening to the other and then responding with another volley from their respective arguments. Some time later, as we came upon the same antagonists eating lunch together, my relative asked how people that seemed so at odds could dine together. My answer was simple, “They’re academics.” More and more I see evidence that my answer was anachronistic.

We operate in a world of ideas, and the pathways are not always clear. We seek continually to understand the intricacies of ideas without the assistance of a road map. Our only guideposts are others’ writings and the aid provided by colleagues willing to enter the morass with us. In the academy, there cannot be any intellectual engagement that is off-limits. Early in the fall semester, in a class where I construct debates around historical topics, a student said that she would not tolerate any negative comments about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. A few other students, all African-Americans like her, murmured their agreement. They presented me with a wonderful teaching opportunity. I explained to them that as future members of this nation’s educated elite, they had a responsibility to participate in civil discourse without resorting to threats. If the informed will not share their knowledge, to whom do we turn? We must produce students that are prepared to persuade with the strength of their argument and not the strength of their voice. We have the opportunity to model such behavior for our students when we engage our colleagues in debate. Even though the dialogue may be heated, it must still be carried out with civility and honor.

Our task has never been easy, and the near future does not promise a lightened burden. We face temptations that urge us to engage in the very things that I deplore. Invitations to appear on high-profile television shows — devised specifically to pit us against ideological antagonists — are offered to those that argue more loudly or interrupt more abruptly. The lures of financial reward or renown are seductions that prove difficult to resist. But we must do exactly that. The university is the bastion against spin, it is the environment where reasoned commentary should prevail and it is not outdated. More than 100 years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois labeled the group of African-Americans who would lead their people into the next century the Talented Tenth. That Tenth would display African-American advancement, education and character to such a degree that Jim Crow laws and restrictive practices would appear unnecessary and corrupt. We are a more diverse group than Du Bois imagined, and our audience is expanded but our charge is analogous: We must make people better. That is what the academy is here to do — make people better. Our colleagues and students are more informed because of our presence, and so we must shoulder our load and continue with dignity.

— Dr. Pierce is chair of the Africana studies department and associate professor in the history department at the University of Notre Dame.

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