New College course promotes civil discourse across political spectrum
Nicole Caratas | Friday, September 22, 2017
This year, Saint Mary’s is offering a class on civil discourse in hopes of promoting dialogue on campus.
The one-credit course, which will begin after fall break, will focus on different controversial issues and promote civil discourse between students from across the political spectrum, philosophy professor Megan Zwart — who started the course — said.
“You have this cross-selection of viewpoints, and we’ll find ways to discuss those ideas,” Zwart said. “The intention is not to become expert on these areas. It’s to acknowledge that global citizens and participants in a democracy have to be able to identify good views to hold, evaluate their own views [and] engage with views they disagree with, so we’re trying to build the skills to do that. It’s not about convincing people of certain particular positions or of using arguments to bludgeon other people who have different views, but trying to listen to other people’s views, see how their experience gives rise to those views.”
Zwart said the class will be predominately discussion-based. She said the first few classes will hone in on one issue — such as free speech or abortion — and the final class will be a public event for the Saint Mary’s community, held Dec. 5 and led entirely by the students in the class.
Zwart came up with this course when her students approached her about wanting a place to discuss heavy issues in a classroom setting, she said. She then applied for and received a Campus Compact Fund for Positive Engagement Grant, which was given to 40 campuses across the nation to promote positive engagement.
“During the election season, when I felt like the conversation around these issues was so disordered, I would see people posting on social media … and I would love to talk to that person,” Zwart said. “I’m immensely curious about what makes people tick and why they hold the views they do. It wasn’t that I felt angry or that I felt so strongly that frustration was the response, it was really more a curiosity.”
In order for the class to run, Zwart made sure to screen students who were interested to make sure a wide array of viewpoints would be represented. She said the class would not have run if only people who identify as liberal or as conservative would have signed up.
“I hope they get to engage with a lot of other experiences and viewpoints that aren’t their own in a spirit of curiosity rather than defensiveness,” Zwart said. “When we’re confronted with something different than what we’re used to or what we think, our immediate response, naturally, is a sort of defensiveness. … I’m hoping that this class can give people an opportunity to approach different views with a curiosity.”
Zwart said she also hopes students will evaluate and understand their own standpoints. She said she wants students to reflect on their views and their personal values and make sure they line up, which would help students better understand their views, thus aiding them when they discuss with people who hold different views.
“I think that people are way more able to hear other people’s views when they see those views as flowing from authentic core values,” she said. “You may not understand those values, but if you understand the person’s view as an outgrowth of that, then you are less likely to have a breakdown in communication — you’re more likely to understand that as an authentic belief, even if you disagree with it.”