An American Return to Civil Discourse

By Andrew Myers

The level of civil discourse in America is both low and divisive. The country seems split almost perfectly in half, with neither side able to compromise or back down. But Ashley Berner, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy at the School of Education, says all is not lost.

One step in the right direction would be for our K-12 schools to instill in their students the skill of having conversations in which they disagree constructively—with respect and civility—in ways that do not invalidate others’ belief systems.

“There’s a lot of evidence out there that teaching these skills early is reflected in positive adult civic behavior later in life,” Berner says. For many reasons, however, these deliberation skills are rarely cultivated in American schools.

Berner recently led an online forum on this subject called “Why Tough Conversations Matter,” hosted by IEP and the SNF Agora Institute – a second Johns Hopkins center that focuses on democratic formation and dialogue. She was joined by Raj Vinnakota, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and Johns Hopkins PhD Candidate Kelly Siegel-Stechler. As the panelists described, Johns Hopkins has created a suite of tools to help teachers, students and even parents, become reacquainted with these fundamental skills.

The first is School Culture 360, developed by IEP to assess the key domains of school life, as seen through different stakeholders’ eyes. Critically, the survey gathers data about a school’s civic robustness. School Culture 360 is easy to administer and helps schools monitor changes over time, in order to capitalize on positive outcomes and address negative ones.

The second resource is, “Election 2020: Engaging Students in Civic Discourse,” written by the institute’s Siegel-Stechler and published by SNF Agora (both Berner and Siegel-Stechler are Agora Fellows). This guide is designed to help schools manage political discussions and promote the art of civil dialogue in the classroom. “Election 2020” is specifically aimed at alleviating some of the tension flowing from this unique election season, but it has applications and implication far beyond November.

“We want to advance civic engagement for all students, from kindergarten to graduation, well into the future,” Berner says.

The good news is that most Americans acknowledge the problem at hand. Civil disagreement doesn’t come naturally, as Berner points out in a blog post for The Brookings Institution’s Brown Center for Educational Policy.

A democracy, she says, must be able to manage internal disagreements, and teaching how to do so is a key function of schools. The values of tolerance, pluralism and respect for different views must be nurtured both practically and routinely, she writes.

Berner is quick to note that while we often assume these conversations apply only to social studies classes, they are equally viable in literature, art and science classrooms. In each of these subjects, students have an opportunity to contemplate and debate both universal questions of the human condition—such as love and death and “the good life”—and also current issues, such as climate change and bioethics.

“From English lit to biology to government, it’s the same principle,” Berner says. “What’s missing is consistent practice. Teachers need to be supported in directing these debates; student must learn to engage without vilifying one another. Johns Hopkins’ tools can help in the process.”