I was sitting in class a few weeks ago when a discussion broke out about recent policy on immigration that led to a heated debate. While I did not vocally participate, I enjoyed hearing both sides assert their responses, and although there was some tension in the room, the discussion was civil. However, the discussion ended quickly when the professor urged the class to move on to the next topic.
While I understand the importance of staying on topic, mature debate can play just as important of a role in learning. According to the Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, civil discourse can enhance understanding of a topic, which can promote personal as well as academic growth. Although many professors do incorporate heavily structured debates into their curriculum, there is rarely a time when students are freely allowed to debate on a particular topic.
Perhaps it is because professors are afraid that the argument will get out of hand, which could negatively impact the classroom environment. However, an important part of education is the ability to recognize an issue and then take a well-informed stance. Often, the best avenue to do that is through unstructured or semi-structured debate.
The term “civil discourse” is often defined as “engagement in conversation intended to enhance understanding.” Different from arguing, civil discourse is the ability to have a conversation while holding completely opposing viewpoints on a topic, and unfortunately, in a modern academic setting, there is not a lot of room for unstructured debate.
The ability to engage in civil discourse is critical for college students, as we are exposed to a wide variety of viewpoints on a daily basis. Because of this, the ability to discuss topics that are considered controversial can allow us to learn more about others’ viewpoints while simultaneously broadening and strengthening our own. Learning to talk to people who are different from you, as a psychology professor here at NC State explained, is critical for broadening horizons and “makes you a better human being.”
When engaging with people who have different opinions, we are able to foster a greater understanding of the issue as well as to interact with others. There are certainly topics that will affect some people more strongly than others, yet professors should still encourage discussion while providing the necessary resources and warnings. For instance, during a discussion on a heavy topic such as human trafficking, the professor could allow students to take a couple of minutes to discuss and debate.
Professors could also allocate time for discussion on a specific topic, perhaps at the end of class, to allow students to contemplate the material and assert their own viewpoints while engaging and interacting with people who disagree with them. While classroom civility and order is important, it is also critical to be able to takes sides on a topic of interest.
After the discussion I witnessed ended, hearing the opposing viewpoints prompted me to do more research on the topic and helped me to strengthen and solidify my view. I hope in the future that I will see more arguments, debates and civil discourse to enhance the material being taught and allow students to grow personally as well as academically.