As part of the weekend-long celebration of President Mark Burnstein’s inauguration, a panel took place on Friday, Oct. 25 regarding the role of universities in relation to a rise of incivility in public discourse and the importance of civility.
The panel was made up of Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele ’94; Christopher Eisgruber, President of Princeton University; William Plapinger, Chair of Vassar College Board of Trustees; and Claudena Skran, Professor of Government and Ediwn and Ruth Weest Professor of Economics and Social Science at Lawrence University. It was moderated by Terry Moran ’82, ABC News Chief Foreign Correspondant.
The panel began with the panelists introducing themselves and briefly outlining their understanding of what incivility and civility mean in the context of the discussion. Due to their diverse backgrounds, each panelist had a unique view on how incivility is affecting society, as well as whether or not this is a new issue.
Early on in the discussion, Moran suggested the possibility that there is not necessarily more incivility in the world now than there was in the past. “The directness of address [in American conversation] is part of our tradition as a country,” Moran stated.
Plapinger agreed with Moran and said that he was “unsure of whether or not we are in a state of incivility.” He also drew attention to the importance of engendering robust argument in certain cases to get things done. He suggested that sometimes it is not possible for civility and robust argument to coexist.
Skran brought back the discussion to the importance of the college classroom in teaching civility. She stated how important it is to pay attention to how something is said beyond what is being said. Skran described what she found to be the two main dimensions of civility as modesty and respect.
She gave a few examples of each that she has seen at Lawrence. She also remarked on the importance of parts of campus such as the Andrew Commons in which almost all Lawrence students must come together. In regards to respect in the classroom Skran said, “A major goal of the undergrad program is to help students learn how to disagree in a civil way while parts of society are uncivil.”
Abele drew on his experience in politics and suggested that the rise in appearance of incivility is due to the increasing polarity of the political system and the tendency of the media to sell incivility more easily than civility. He suggested that, with the millennial generation tending more towards a moderate stance on many political issues, “it may become necessary for political parties to redefine themselves.”
His point about the role of the media brought on some discussion about how the media itself has changed in recent years. Moran brought forth the point that, with the increase in instant online access to information, the media has had to change the way it does things drastically. In regards to both the media and the general feelings of incivility Moran said, “The America of yesterday is fighting against the America of tomorrow.”
In the end, there were a variety of ideas given by panelists on how to handle the shifting world. Ideas ranged from changing the governmental structure to starting to focus on demonstrating civility at universities like Lawrence.
The panel was hosted by Alumni and Constituency Engagement (ACE).