Bingo cards and prizes from American University’s 2020 Super Tuesday “Both Sides Bingo” event.

There is Bravery in Recognizing How Much We Must Learn

TAKEAWAY: The Project on Civil Discourse at American University challenges people, especially university students, to engage in society’s issues by first learning about themselves and then stepping up to take responsibility for the messages they choose to convey.

2020 will be a rich lode for future historians, who will explore in earnest the long-term effects of a global pandemic, a broad upheaval against policing practices, and a watershed U.S. election with implications for the world. Whether these events ultimately lead to a better, healthier society remains to be seen. While change may be driven by mass action, it starts and endures through personal introspection and a sense of individual responsibility. That’s the core concept of American University’s Project on Civil Discourse, (the Project) founded and led by Lara Schwartz, a lawyer and former advocate for civil rights groups turned professor.  

The Project began in 2017 at American, which is sited on 90 acres of northwest Washington, DC. Schwartz, a constitutional scholar and lecturer, was asked to develop a program that could help American’s community contemplate and act on the meaning of free speech, as well as its real-life ramifications. Schwartz and her team created a pilot program to engage participants in questions about freedom of speech and the power of words, including the long-term effects of lies and speech perceived as hurtful. The pilot was judged as effective and was introduced university-wide in September 2018.  

Through the Project, participants examine their values, goals and choices, and then go beyond, to become an “architect” of their voices. Schwartz says, “Being an architect means actively deciding how best to communicate in service of your goals and values, taking responsibility for your choices as a member of the university community; pushing yourself to engage in rigorous inquiry; and challenging yourself to make the most of your education.”  

The Program sets out clear guideposts in what constitutes civil discourse:

  • It is rooted in truth. Facts count. Says Olivia Ivey, an associate librarian writing about the Project, “If we can’t agree on a set of facts about what communities need, then we really are just shouting into the wind. We need pursuit of truth to be part of our civil discourse or it’s not even possible to begin a conversation.”
  • It is productive and designed to find solutions
  • It is centered on the audience, not the speaker
  • It is about listening and talking
  • It is each speaker’s individual responsibility

On the opposite side of the coin, the Project notes that civil discourse is not mere politeness, nor is it an exercise in martyrdom. It is not about telling people who they are, and it is not purely performative.  

Notably, the Project posits that civil discourse is not an unlimited search for common ground. Civil discourse is not “fire and forget”—people have the responsibility to weigh their statements and how they affect others. They also have the right to not engage with those whose words are demonstrably false.

Today, through the Project for Civil Discourse, American University holds events, provides tools and resources, and supports student-led discussions on free speech and its associated rights and responsibilities. Concepts promoted through the Center are being adopted in the university’s classrooms. One resource for teachers is a tool called “Building My Voice,” which enables participants to reflect on their own goals, values, and habits as speakers, listeners, and learners to further help students architect their voices.

Perhaps the Project’s greatest leverage comes during student orientation, when new members of the campus community are open to learning more about themselves and how they interact with others. Project concepts are now integrated into the immediate student orientation at the beginning of a semester. The AU Experience, a two-semester onboarding experience covering everything from time management to taking responsibility for outcomes, includes a segment on civil discourse and encourages students to attend the Project’s student-facilitated discussions.

Overall, we seek to break down preconceived tribal and partisan positions and challenge students to build an ethos of inquiry.

Says Schwartz, “College is literally about being thoughtful,” she notes. “The fortunate thing about academia is we have learning goals and outcomes. We’re not here to care whether you’re ‘Feeling the Bern’ or ‘Making America Great Again.’ It’s, ‘Are you using credible sources and habits of mind?’”

She continues, “Overall, we seek to break down preconceived tribal and partisan positions and challenge students to build an ethos of inquiry. Together we show bravery in acknowledging how little we understand.”