Why a Civility Conference?

The Center for Political Participation Hosts

Pathway to Civility:  National Conference of College Leaders

May 15-16, 2012

 The Center for Political Participation (CPP) at Allegheny College will host Pathway to Civility: A National Conference of College Leaders, May 15-16, 2012.  The conference is designed to enhance respectful political dialogue on college and university campuses, and to help student leaders understand the importance of civil political engagement.  More than 200 campus student leaders have been invited to Allegheny for this novel three-day event.  They will participate with a host of activities designed to broaden perspectives regarding political activism and compromise.  They will hear from recognized political figures, high-profile journalists, and leading scholars.  They also will have the opportunity to socialize with peers from across the nation and from across the “partisan divide.”

Is Declining Civility a Problem?

Encouraging civility and arriving at compromise solutions are vexing challenges in any democracy, particularly when issues are daunting and numerous.  If we cannot talk to each other, and if we are unwilling to compromise, the great challenges of our democratic system will remain unsolved and the public will grow increasingly cynical. 

Not long ago, seasoned conservative commentator Peggy Noonan asserted in the Wall Street Journal, “It’s a mistake not to see something new, something raw and bitter and dangerous, in the particular moment we’re in.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman pondered whether we can “seriously discuss serious issues any longer and make decisions on the basis of the national interest, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Shribman wrote, “The truth is that our civic life is no longer civil.”

A vast majority of average Americans agree that the system is in trouble and that declining civility is a serious concern.  In a nationwide poll conducted in April 2010, the Center for Political Participation found that a resounding 95 percent of Americans believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy.  Nearly as many said it was possible for people to “disagree respectfully,” and more than three out of four agreed with the statement, “Right now, Washington is broken.”

Indeed, the CPP takes seriously its leadership role in civil discourse, but also is committed to promoting youth engagement in politics.  Many Americans, especially young Americans, are turning away from the system because of its increasingly uncivil tone.  While vitriol and hardcore partisanship might inspire some, it pushes many, but most notably, young citizens to the sidelines.

Social and political scientists decry today’s seemingly disengaged youth, but all is not lost.  Now is the time to craft a more active, civil, and thoughtful citizenry, especially among college-age students.  As educators, we have a particularly important opportunity and obligation to provide a context in which students can address these concerns.

What Can We Do About It?

The Center for Political Participation is poised to continue and broaden its work on this important issue.  Since April 2010, when its “Nastiness, Name-calling & Negativity” report first exposed how much Americans have become fed-up with the tone of politics, the CPP conducted two additional national polls to gauge public sentiment. Both of those surveys found that civility had deteriorated even more with the acrimonious midterm elections. Nearly three out of four Americans suggest that last year’s midterm elections were one of the nastiest they had ever seen.

People from across the nation have turned to our research for comprehensive, objective information, and we are dedicated to continuing this important work.  Our first Pathway to Civility conference was held in May 2010, when more than 75 student leaders representing 14 colleges and universities from throughout the country gathered to grapple with the related issues of youth political engagement and incivility in politics. The group released a joint statement to guide the public discourse of elected officials and their constituents.  This statement is available at our website: http://sites.allegheny.edu/cpp/2010/05/26/college-leaders-craft-10-tips-to-improve-civility/.

The 2012 Pathway to Civility conference, boasting at least three times the number of students than the previous event, will offer innovative sessions on moderation, compromise and problem-solving. Student leaders will design a template for future civility by participating in mock debates, discussing policy advocacy, critiquing relevant films, and hearing presentations on important contemporary issues, such as the role of the media, declining comity in Congress, and rising levels of partisanship. Participants will confront contentious, often polarizing, topics in a workshop setting, ever mindful of exploring the possibility of common ground.  Several activities are scheduled on campus and in the community, along with a chance to hear from a recognized political figure and other speakers.

Why College Students?

The CPP has listened to 44 percent of all Americans in its “Nastiness, Name-calling & Negativity” poll who say colleges and universities need to take the lead in restoring civility.  This is an issue that falls at the doorstep of institutions of higher learning, particularly liberal arts colleges like Allegheny.

Historically, colleges and universities have been at the forefront of efforts to promote the open, respectful exchange of ideas.  Higher education institutions ought to provide a sphere where citizens air their views, confident that others will listen, if not agree. Debate on college campuses can be intense, as it should be, but it is here where young citizens appreciate the lessons and artof democracy.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Global Perspective Institute adheres to this belief, too. On Jan. 10, 2012, they joined with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other Obama administration officials and higher education luminaries at the White House to make the case that an engaged citizenry will bolster the country’s democracy and economy.

The AACU also released a report, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” which outlines a new vision of civic learning: familiarity with democratic principles and political structures, as well as knowledge of political systems, cultures and religions in the U.S. and other parts of the world.  It calls on colleges and universities to be the “carrier of democratic values” by building partnerships with nonprofits, government agencies and business.

Susan Herbst, president of the University of Connecticut and author of the 2011 book, Rude Democracy, suggested the initiative can be even more meaningful if it promotes respectful debate among students.  Negotiation and compromise are important tools in the democratic process, Herbst says, adding, “Along with teaching argument and civility, we in higher education will need to teach compromise. If we don’t, we will not change political life at all, or move the nation forward for its citizens, who so desperately need strong, thoughtful leadership.”