These Professors Are Asking Students to Consider Divisive Ideas – and Learn

Photo for The Washington Post by Eric Lee
Freshman Taha Vahanvaty, left, and Sasha O’Connell, executive in residence at the American University School for Public Affairs, talk on Feb. 22, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Lara Schwartz faced a room full of American University students, making a case she was sure many would disagree with: The university, she said, shouldn’t ban controversial speakers.

By turns eloquent, blunt and funny, she said access to a broad exchange of ideas is important – and is the best thing about college. Then she urged the students to make their strongest counterarguments.

“Come at me,” she said.

Hands shot up. Someone said vulnerable students shouldn’t have to bear the burden of debating a white supremacist or a homophobe, or be fearful because people with those views are on campus. Another said the intent of the invitation matters: “If you just want to invite Ben Shapiro to piss off a lot of people, that’s wrong.”

“I’m a freshman,” the student added, “so I could be wrong.”

Schwartz, the founding director of the Project on Civil Discourse at AU, shot back a reassuring response: “You could be wrong if you’re a 51-year-old lawyer!”

The discussion was part of “Disagree with a Professor,” a regular, voluntary series at AU that aims to help students practice speaking up, feel comfortable figuring out their own ideas and countering those they disagree with. It is part of a broader effort across higher education to teach civil discourse, a skill that proponents say is essential to democracy – and all too rare.

The efforts are intended as a counterweight to the divisiveness and hostility common on social media, in politics, and, at times, at colleges where students have shouted down speakers or tried to keep them off campus entirely. In some circles, college students are seen as too thin-skinned to listen to a wide range of views.

Schwartz worries that undermines public trust in academia – and can make some students skeptical of the importance of free speech.

“It just feels to me like an important issue of our time,” Schwartz said. “How can we listen to one another, speak to one another and solve our significant problems together as a society?

“Universities are actually a wonderful, wonderful place to learn that and practice that.”

Now schools, nonprofits and faculty members across the country are looking for solutions, with many creating programs to foster civil discourse. The efforts are varied and evolving, with institutional commitment to the principles on some campuses and faculty-led initiatives bubbling up on others. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology began a “Dialogues Across Difference” program in March. Princeton University added training on free speech to its orientation for students arriving on campus this year. The university’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, spoke about the importance of empathy, mutual respect and careful listening, and said he was dismayed when he heard people “treat free speech and inclusivity as contending values, as though we had to choose one or the other. Democracy requires both. So too does education.”

Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan nonprofit alliance of faculty, staff and students, launched communities on 23 campuses this year – including Johns Hopkins University, and the universities of Virginia, Kentucky, Toronto and California at Berkeley – with more expected soon, promoting their ideals of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement.

In Virginia, a dozen schools – including Virginia Tech, Danville Community College and Norfolk State and George Mason universities – have partnered with the nonprofit Constructive Dialogue Institute for campuswide initiatives. The efforts are sponsored by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The program was first adopted campuswide at William & Mary.

Drew Stelljes, associate vice president for student engagement and leadership at William & Mary, said the platform first presents behavioral science data that helps staff, faculty or students understand why people tend to respond to ideas in certain ways, then helps them build skills in listening to opposing viewpoints.

“Part of this is that we have college students who have grown up in an era of deeply eroded trust,” Stelljes said. Instead of curiosity and a desire to learn more, he said, they are apt to respond with criticism and judgment. The platform helped them recognize their initial reactions and gave them tools to listen with more open-mindedness.

In one class, he played a clip of someone interviewing people in a rural area about guns. Many of the students were in favor of gun control, he said, and were emotional and judgmental after seeing the people talking about 2nd Amendment rights. He asked them to watch the clip again but with curiosity about learning a different perspective on the issue.

This time, he said, the way the students saw the issue had changed. Some were pointing out that the interviewer had been asking some leading questions that pitted people against one another.

Daniel Diermeier, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, described what he sees on campuses now as a sort of rush to righteousness – people immediately taking a position of good vs. evil and no longer listening to the other side. It’s essential, he said, to create a culture of free expression in which faculty and students can engage with complex topics and take their ideas as far as possible.

Vanderbilt has taken a number of approaches to what Diermeier said is a complex problem without easy solutions. One instance that worked: After the women’s basketball team stayed in the locker room during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, they were asked to meet with students who are veterans to talk about what it means to be a patriot. The students talked about what it feels like to experience racial discrimination, and what it feels like to experience a battlefield. After the conversation in fall 2021, the team decided to stand for the national anthem, and also to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, before games.

People are too apt to talk only with people they agree with, Diermeier said; universities can help broker conversations between groups that don’t easily mix.

But with the country so polarized, even initiatives to counter divisions are, in some places, divisive.

When board members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this year passed a resolution to accelerate creation of the School of Civic Life and Leadership, the trustees’ chairman said it would build on the work begun on campus to counter political polarization, and give students access to diverse viewpoints. But some faculty were skeptical, and alarmed – especially since some conservative media outlets welcomed the idea as a means to push back against leftist dominance on campus.

That has been an issue at AU as well, said Keisuke Fujio, a senior who is program coordinator for the school’s Project on Civil Discourse. Some students on the left-leaning campus assume defense of free speech is a pro-conservative tenet, he said, and avoid their gatherings “because they think we’re all about defending the trollers like Milo Yiannopoulos,” and people who use free speech as a cover for their own bigotry.

“We’re the opposite,” Fujio said. “We want as many conversations to be included as possible.”

Schwartz, a senior professorial lecturer at AU, came to this work from the political left.

As a legislative lawyer and an advocate for civil rights, she saw the necessity of learning from divergent viewpoints. Working for LGBTQ rights required listening to people’s religious and other concerns, she said; she needed to understand their thinking to try to persuade them.

The idea behind the project is that dialogue across difference, and using one’s voice in an atmosphere of free expression and academic freedom, respect and inclusion, is a college-level skill to be worked on and perfected and tried, she said. In addition to the Disagree series, created with AU’s School of Public Affairs Undergraduate Council, Schwartz and experienced students train other students to become dialogue facilitators who sometimes join classrooms. They also host drop-in sessions during the year on topics such as taboo words and whether their professors’ politics matter.

Anna Given, a junior from Pennsylvania who is part of a conservative group of women on campus and became a peer facilitator, said in an interview that she was drawn to the Disagree sessions for the chance to exchange ideas without judgment.

Khushi Ramnani, a junior from Dubai, said in classes, “You kind of read the room and see what most people are thinking. If your opinion is too provocative you keep it to yourself.” It’s rare to hear an unpopular opinion in that setting, she said – but when it does happen, it’s usually followed by a shocked text to a group chat.

“Everyone’s complaining about colleges being these bulwarks against free speech, and college kids as woke, sensitive snowflakes,” said Taha Vahanvaty, a first-year student at AU. “How do we challenge that narrative?”

Vahanvaty said the discourse project was something that drew him to AU. “In public education there’s a big fear of saying the wrong thing and getting canceled by students or parents,” he said. “It’s a very refreshing thing to have it be very upfront, to say, ‘Hey, I have an opinion that you might disagree with.'”

Fujio said that within the project he found other students who were as curious as him – and as undecided.

Schwartz hands out buttons with “IDK” – “I Don’t Know” – on them to encourage students to lean into uncertainty.

At the Disagree event this semester, Given pointed out that every time someone mentioned a “controversial” speaker, it was someone on the political right.

Another student said it was wrong to compare limiting speech on the left and the right because those on the left aren’t limiting people’s civil liberties.

Schwartz pushed back, saying people in big parts of the country are worried about losing civil liberties such as the right to own guns or decline vaccines. The student was skeptical, saying conservatives have always infringed on people’s civil liberties and now are playing the victim to win. After some back-and-forth, Schwartz advised students that it’s helpful to define terms such as “liberal” and “conservative,” and encouraged them to think about the idea of dialogue rather than defeating ideas.

As the hour wound down, she noted some common threads she had heard: a desire for real conversation that allows people to figure out what works; not having an orthodoxy that becomes meaningless; distrust of top-down, punitive efforts to restrict speech. She closed with a final take, saying she didn’t think they should have regulations on speakers “because college is better than that, and there is harder work to do.

“So I amend my argument based on your better arguments,” she said, “. . . and we can all keep talking.”

A few students grabbed backpacks and walked out into the night, but most stayed in the room to do just that.