How degraded is public discourse in America?
Badly enough that a comedian, Jon Stewart, has to be the one to warn us about it.
And badly enough that Ohio University is working on a grant-funded plan to teach students how to discuss hot issues without hollering insults.
In the proposal that won OU a $100,000 "Difficult Dialogues" grant from the Ford Foundation, the authors cite with approval the October 2004 appearance by Stewart, host of the political spoof program "The Daily Show," on CNN's "Crossfire."
The comic made headlines when he politely informed the show's reigning pundits that their bellowing, finger-jabbing travesty of political discussion was "hurting America."
David Descutner, OU associate provost and dean of University College, agrees. OU's new Difficult Dialogues program, he said, will help teach students a model for discussing tough political and social issues that's better than the one employed on pundit shows.
"Right now, it's name-calling," Descutner said. Many undergraduates report that when they discuss sensitive topics with other students, he added, they feel inhibited from open conversation, fearing that they may trigger an angry response.
"They don't say what they want to say, they don't ask the questions they want to ask, and consequently they don't learn from each other," he said.
OU's grant proposal laments that many students "have never in their lives participated or even witnessed a spirited public discussion of a disputed topic in which participants treated opposing ideas with serious intellectual respect," or tried to learn something from their opponents' arguments.
Instead of taking this approach, the proposal maintains, students today tend to either mimic the "unproductive rhetorical gamesmanship" they see on TV, or wash their hands of public dialogue as a nasty business altogether.
Enter Steve Hays, associate professor of classics and world religions. Hays will act as "principle investigator" in OU's version of the "Difficult Dialogues" initiative. Along with colleagues from his own department, African-American Studies and University College, he will try to teach students a more productive way to argue about the things that really count.
Not surprisingly for a classics professor, Hays looks to that timeless moderator, Socrates, for guidance. In dialogues recorded by Plato, Socrates prods the members of group discussions to explain their opinions, and then subjects every argument to deep inspection with the aid of the group. Hays said this approach provides an alternative to "the model of discourse as combat, in which the point is to vanquish the opponent."
The whole point of the Socratic method, he added, is that it helped the philosopher himself -- who was forever insisting on his own ignorance -- to a better understanding of the issues he raised.
"It sharpened his own thinking," Hays noted. "The primary challenge is to persuade people that the purpose of dialogue is to make progress towards intellectual clarity. And that requires a willingness to change your own views."
Hays argued that if the academy doesn't teach people how to conduct a productive, civilized debate, they probably won't learn it anywhere else. He warned, however, that for civilized discussion to take place, participants do have to accept a few ground rules, one of the most important being that no established authority can be invoked to trump the findings of rational debate.
The university, he noted, is "a historic institution," which came into existence partly to challenge the intellectual status quo, and the academic's working attitude should be one of open-minded skepticism.
"From the very beginning, universities have always refused to say, "Well, if the pope says it, it must be,'" Hays argued. "Everything is open to challenge on the basis of reason. If you don't want that, don't come to a university."
Without any particular method, Hays has been pushing the gospel of flexible, rational discourse for years. He learned by doing, in the course of teaching classes with titles like "Love in Antiquity" and "Human Aspirations Among the Greeks and Romans."
In the former, his students had to grapple with the implications of the fact that for Socrates, the beautiful concept of "Eros" often seemed to entail a strong attraction to comely young men. In the latter, they had to learn to approach the Christian Bible -- whatever their personal religious beliefs -- as one more historical text, with no special claim to divine authority.
What he hopes students can come to realize, Hays said, is that the reason discussion of important topics tends to get heated is that the topics are important, and trying to understand them can be frustrating.
"The reason we get so angry talking about justice is, none of us knows what it is," he suggested.
Hays admitted that, while militant certainty can be a major obstacle to discussion, timidity disguised as civility can kill a debate just as dead. "This is what I grew up with in the South -- and oh, I hated it -- 'It is always polite to agree with the other person,'" he recalled.
As part of its involvement in the two-year Ford project, OU will offer a three-day camp to show incoming freshmen how to argue in a civilized, productive way, and will also create "diverse residential learning communities" where students can put these new skills into practice. In addition, the university will develop three new permanent courses specifically designed to impart the intellectual skills that help such dialogues happen.
These are skills that are always useful, Hays suggested, and may be needed now more than ever.
"I think it's just a feature of American life, and maybe just of all human life, that there are difficult topics to talk about," he said.