The Education Issue

Good Talk

College students have become increasingly fearful of expressing views that are unpopular or controversial. A new civil dialogue movement attempts to restore healthy debate.

On a Tuesday night in November, Lindsey Perlman logged onto Zoom with low expectations. Perlman, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, was taking a class called “Civil Dialogue Seminar: Civic Engagement in a Divided Nation.” The course encouraged her to participate in a campus event where students gathered to discuss controversial topics, like race-based admissions preferences and immigration policy. It sounded interesting, but Perlman had been to one of these sessions the previous month and came away disappointed.

The discussion sessions, called the Red and Blue Exchange, were being held on Zoom because of the pandemic. This made things awkward. Even so, the handful of students in her breakout room had been reluctant to contribute or were overly polite. Perlman wasn’t expecting a fight, but some passion would have been nice — something to prove that heartfelt dialogue on campus was possible. In her three years at Penn, she had frequently seen students dismiss opinions that challenged their politics. Often, those opinions were hers.

It wasn’t long, though, before Perlman began to sense that November’s Red and Blue Exchange might be different. One of the prompts asked, “What values, principles, or guidelines do you think should guide the United States in determining the flow of immigrants and refugees into the country?”

A White, male student said that some of the country’s resources should be reserved for Americans. A Latina student named Alejandra felt like he was accusing undocumented people of taking resources. She said that assumption was flawed: Undocumented immigrants faced numerous barriers when they arrived, she explained. They often couldn’t access resources at all. Her own parents had come to the United States undocumented from El Salvador, she said, and it had taken them years to build their lives up from nothing.

Others in the breakout room agreed with her, but the male student pushed back. He said every country had borders and a right to enforce them. America could try to be humane, but it had to restrict people. That was reality.

Alejandra and her opponent went back-and-forth. At one point Alejandra grew so emotional that she turned off her camera to compose herself. The facilitator for the group shifted the conversation in a different direction, and she turned her camera back on. Everybody moved on, amiably enough.

Just before the session ended, the White student spoke up. He apologized to Alejandra. “I hope I haven’t offended you,” he said. “If I did, I’m sorry.”

“I really appreciate you saying that,” Alejandra replied. “I wanted to dismiss what you were saying, but your perspective helped me think about the ways that I can bring more awareness to these issues.”

Watching all this, Perlman, who is White, felt heartened. She couldn’t think of a situation on campus where these two students would have interacted with each other in such a personal and, ultimately, respectful way. “In any other setting it could have ended so differently,” she said. “I told a couple of my friends, and they were like, ‘Oh my God, they must have started screaming!’ And I told them, ‘No, it was a really civil conversation.’ ”

Since Gen Z began entering college in 2015, a growing number of academic institutions have started to look critically at their own campus culture. They’re asking how, amid intense national polarization, divergent student voices can speak and be heard. The answer has taken shape as a civil dialogue movement — a collection of courses, orientation programs, workshops and events — that help students communicate across differences.

This is an initiative that undergraduates say they want. In a 2022 Knight Foundation-Ipsos study on free expression and campus speech, a large majority of students said that exposure to diverse opinions is very important to a healthy democracy. But would they actively seek out such exposure themselves? At Penn, for instance, the civil dialogue seminar is a small class whose success depends on attracting an ideologically and racially diverse cohort of students. And if they do come, what impact can a 10-person class — or even a 50-person Red and Blue Exchange event — really have on an undergraduate population of 10,000?

The dialogue movement is trying to address this. In November, a task force of academic leaders released “Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap,” practical steps to help trustees, administrators, faculty and students create a more open and inclusive campus culture. Many of the recommendations are already being piloted. These include orientation programs focused on free expression; workshops and team meetings for athletes, fraternities and sororities; and new pedagogical approaches for faculty. Some schools are getting creative. At American University, professors can request student facilitators to lead discussions that draw out differing opinions and perspectives. And the University of Connecticut recently added a dialogue competency to its Common Curriculum.

These are all noble efforts, but are they enough? The national tide of partisanship is powerful, and many people believe the walls have already been breached.

There’s ample evidence that today’s college students are concerned about free expression. In 2021, half of undergraduates in the Knight-Ipsos survey said they felt comfortable disagreeing with their instructor or peers in the classroom. Sixty-five percent said their campus climate prevented them from speaking freely for fear they’d be seen as offensive, an 11-point increase from 2016.

Conservative pundits and politicians claim this chilling effect is intentional, with colleges overtly pushing liberal groupthink. But Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Campus Free Expression Project at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center, says the reality is more complicated. “Students aren’t seeing examples of how you have respectful conversations with people you disagree with,” Merrill says. From school boards to cable news to Congress, young people see local and national leaders modeling poor behavior.

Also, today’s undergraduates are more likely to come from politically, socioeconomically and racially homogeneous communities. That’s a problem, Merrill says, because campuses are more diverse than ever. “One of the challenges for campus leaders is to make the case to students that open inquiry are pathways to inclusion,” she says. “There might be moments of real tension, but these are fundamentally compatible values.”

Finally, social media has changed the game. It not only “silos people into more think-alike communities,” Merrill says, but it “doesn’t support nuanced conversation.”

In a Knight Foundation-Ipsos study on free expression and campus speech, 65 percent of undergraduates said their campus climate prevented them from speaking freely for fear they’d be seen as offensive.

The civil dialogue movement, then, is an attempt to acclimate students to a new world — one that requires a special kind of bravery. On the first day of the Penn civil dialogue seminar, the instructors introduce the idea of a “brave space”: a place where students are encouraged to be honest and vulnerable and where giving offense won’t wreck their social lives or their academic careers.

“If you live in a bubble and you have no sense about other legitimate viewpoints that are different from yours and you just deal with straw men, you’ll think you’re objective,” says Chris Satullo, a veteran journalist and dialogue consultant who co-teaches the seminar. “We’re trying to give students skills to pierce their bubble.”

Still, some students are skeptical. “It feels patronizing … teaching students how to have conversations,” says Cecelia Vieira, a White Penn senior who has interned for the Bipartisan Policy Center. “I’ve tried to convince my friends who are progressive to come to [dialogue] events I’ve hosted,” she says. “They’re like, ‘For what?’ ”

Schools may not know which dialogue strategies will resonate or have a clear plan to implement them, but Merrill says figuring out such issues has become a priority. The task force behind the free expression road map included leaders who serve or have served at large public universities, historically Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, religious schools and liberal arts institutions. Merrill advised the project and saw universities fundamentally shift their thinking about what incoming students should know. “It’s not an expectation that 18-year-olds come to campus with these skills,” she says. “We need to help build them up.”

Lindsey Perlman loves Penn. She joined a sorority and a student government committee, and was a reporter for the Daily Pennsylvanian. She’s a political science major with sights on law school or possibly journalism. But three years in, she hasn’t quite managed to reconcile the campus culture she’d expected with the one she has found.

She arrived freshman year galvanized around liberal politics, especially women’s rights. After watching Brett Kavanaugh join the Supreme Court, she became so outspoken in her high school history class that some kids called her a “feminazi.” At Penn she hoped to find people who understood her passion. The people she met were passionate, she says, but not so understanding. She’d applied to an orientation program, which she thought was focused on community service. Instead, students spent three days talking about identity and privilege. When the student facilitator asked them to list the harms caused by capitalism, Perlman raised her hand and asked why they were assuming that capitalism was bad. She didn’t have strong opinions on the subject, but she didn’t like to make presumptions. In response, the facilitator told Perlman to be more sensitive, she says, because “capitalism was objectively harmful to minorities.”

Two months later, a speaker controversy swept campus. Thomas Homan, a director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under President Donald Trump and a high-ranking ICE official under President Barack Obama, came to speak at Penn’s Perry World House. Student protesters in the audience were so disruptive, shouting at Homan, that the school canceled the event minutes after it began. Shortly thereafter, a teaching assistant in Perlman’s political science class asked the students what they thought of the situation. Perlman raised her hand. “I understand that people are upset, but there are more constructive ways than shutting it down,” she said. She wondered if students could have asked hard-hitting questions during the Q&A or protested outside the event. “I worded the question carefully,” she said recently. “I read the room.” It didn’t matter.

“You’re not an undocumented immigrant,” she says the TA said, “so you can’t understand.” Perlman considered responding, but she kept quiet, worried that pushing back would damage her relationship with her TA.

She was struggling to find her bearings. “I came from being called the most liberal person in high school, and I come to Penn and feel like I’m a Trumper,” she says. In fact, over time, she realized she was probably more of a centrist or an independent.

Perlman wasn’t alone in her frustration. Her friend Connor Gibson, a White student, was also troubled by some of the ideological rigidity he experienced on campus. He’d come to Penn from a three-stoplight town in western Pennsylvania and wanted exposure to everything he didn’t have growing up. He didn’t think twice about attending the Homan lecture. “Whether we agree or not, this is a government official who had a big impact on the functioning of our government,” he says.

But some friends spotted Gibson entering the lecture hall and stopped talking to him. Gibson was distraught. “It was kind of heartbreaking that this would be something that would affect a long, pretty close friendship,” he says. He understood that some students might have “real concerns” about having Homan on campus, given his hard-line approach to undocumented immigrants. But Gibson was stuck on principle as much as they were. “The more vocal or activist students feel the benefits of this person coming [to campus] doesn’t outweigh the harm that it does to marginalized populations,” Gibson says. He disagreed with this. But he also struggled with the moral superiority some of these kids projected. “If you are completely confident that you are correct, then it’s not worth your time to debate those who aren’t as enlightened,” he says.

Gibson eventually talked it over with some of his friends; the ones who agreed to engage came around. “Our friendships are stronger than ever,” he says. But at least one person refused to sit down with him. So when he heard about the civil dialogue seminar, he registered. The following year, he recommended the course to Perlman.

“We’re trying to put civic dialogue conversation in the context of American history,” Chris Satullo says. “We bring it up to date. This is a rolling conversation where every generation has to figure out how to resolve tensions among the founding ideals.” The class includes a crash course in social psychology — how people often let emotion dictate reason and the benefits and drawbacks to working as a group. Groupthink can “compound errors,” Satullo says. On the other hand, “All of us can be smarter than one of us.” The class teaches practical approaches to navigating a heated discussion. These aren’t all as obvious as “avoid stereotypes” or “use ‘I’ statements.” They cover how to frame contrary points of view, to be aware when your emotions are flaring, and how considering which perspectives aren’t present might change the whole discussion. Students receive facilitation training and are given the chance to moderate Red and Blue Exchange events.

“It was one of the rare spaces on campus that I experienced something that was completely unfiltered,” Gibson says. “That was refreshing … the students were committed to disagreeing and be okay [with that].”

Perlman appreciated the seminar’s viewpoint diversity. One week, Loretta Ross, an activist and Smith College professor who is Black, talked about how a person’s race didn’t make them immune to criticism and that everyone deserved a chance to be “called in” — i.e., engaged with instead of shunned. Another week, the speaker was Kelsey Jones, a Black professor at Williams College, who said a racially fluent conversation required both permission to make mistakes and sensitivity toward the life experiences of people of color.

“If you live in a bubble and you have no sense about other legitimate viewpoints ... you’ll think you’re objective,” Penn instructor Chris Satullo says. “We’re trying to give students skills to pierce their bubble.”

Perlman felt energized by some messages and challenged by others. She explored her reactions in weekly journal entries that she shared with the class. When she wrote about her experience with the political science TA, other students said they could relate. Hadriana Lowenkron, a liberal student in the class who is Black, also left a comment. She agreed with the TA that Perlman didn’t have the perspective of an undocumented person but said she thought Perlman’s questions were good ones and could have led to a constructive conversation.

Still, the class sometimes frustrated Perlman. There was so much talking about talking, she says. The discussions often felt academic and theoretical. Occasionally, small groups would discuss prompts from the Red and Blue Exchange, like what to do with Confederate statues or buildings named after George Washington. The discussions sometimes felt stilted, even when people disagreed. The most consistently animated person in the room was Satullo, who took up the need for constructive conversation with an urgency usually associated with cable news pundits.

Satullo recalled that two days after the 2016 election, he presented to a room of Philadelphia liberals who were still in shock. He told the audience, “ ‘Your first assignment is to take a Trump voter to lunch and find out why they voted for him.’ And they booed me out of the room.” Satullo said it himself one day in class: In any conversation, consider which voices aren’t in the room.

Could you get resistant voices engaged in dialogue without them having to opt in? At Penn, the civil dialogue seminar and the Red and Blue Exchange are initiatives of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Paideia Program, a new multidisciplinary institute that emphasizes civic engagement. (The Stavros Niarchos Foundation funds similar programs at the University of Delaware and Johns Hopkins.) At Penn, Paideia runs about 20 courses. These include “How Washington Really Works” and “Technological Innovation and Civil Discourse in a Dynamic World.”

Perlman feels civil dialogue will be more effective if you don’t have to advertise it. On Tuesday mornings just before the civil dialogue seminar, she had a class with the unassuming title “Journalism and Public Service.” The professor was critic and philosopher Carlin Romano, who took a Socratic approach: putting students on the spot and playing devil’s advocate.

One day, during a discussion of the 1619 Project, Romano took the conversation in a decidedly un-PC direction. Zane Pasha, a Muslim, first-generation American, who described his politics as “maybe left of Bernie Sanders,” was fixated on a belief that history was written by White people. Because the dominant perspective was Eurocentric, he said, we should be careful when policing critics like Nikole Hannah-Jones. Romano questioned Pasha’s premise. He began to list the many Black scholars who’d made important contributions to the field of American history; had Pasha considered their work? Further, what did Pasha think about the previous night’s reading by Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian who said there was no direct evidence suggesting the Founding Fathers fought the Revolution to protect slavery? In other words, what if Hannah-Jones’s corrective to the White perspective was simply wrong?

“He keeps me grounded in my reality when he pushes back on my opinions,” Pasha said later. “I think that’s very valuable.” He’d met with Romano several times during office hours, and those conversations had been especially instructive. “I’m still sticking with my views,” he said, “but I need to hear what the rest of the world is thinking.”

Toward the end of the semester Pasha discovered that Romano had nearly been canceled the previous year. As a former board president for the National Book Critics Circle, he had been asked to weigh in on the organization’s Black Lives Matter statement in June 2020. When his critique of some points leaked, it unleashed a furor on social media. Some members of the organization tried to oust him from the board, and a petition circulated, calling for his dismissal from Penn. Neither effort succeeded. Pasha said he would have struggled over whether to take the class had he known about this incident. Either way, he was happy to be there. He said that at Penn, he always felt like the contrarian in the room. He sometimes self-censored for fear students would call him anti-American. But Romano challenged everybody, and that took some of the pressure off.

In retrospect, Perlman felt that Romano’s class and the civil dialogue seminar were complementary. Romano’s class was more likely to foster genuinely challenging conversations, and the civil dialogue seminar gave her strategies to navigate them. On one occasion, while studying a Philadelphia Inquirer series about school violence, an international student from Zimbabwe offered some especially controversial insights about approaches to school discipline. Before the civil dialogue seminar, Perlman said, she would have jumped into a rebuttal. But after hearing the student talk about her background, “It was like, ‘Oh, it all makes sense now.’ I guess instead of immediately dismissing [her perspective], it caused me to consider it more deeply,” Perlman says.

Much of the criticism directed at university culture today is premised on the notion of a free-expression golden age, when everybody said exactly what they thought without consequence. But in truth, it rarely played out like that. “There’s something unnatural and fragile about a university culture that’s really open,” says Jon Shields, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. “It’s the old proverb: We shouldn’t talk about religion and politics with our neighbors.” The difference today, he says, is that Gen Z activist culture challenges these natural tendencies, “intervening with our normal human desire not to give offense.”

“The intensity of viewpoints on these really wicked problems we’re facing has gotten to the point where if you’re a student or faculty and feel your viewpoints diverge from the common wisdom, there is self-censorship or hesitancy,” says Michael X. Delli Carpini, faculty director of the Paideia Program. He says Paideia aims to help students consider multiple viewpoints, but not at the expense of quashing anybody’s passion to fix those “wicked problems.”

Delli Carpini also says that Gen Z and millennials “actually agree with each other more than we — and they — sometimes think.”

According to a Pew Research Center survey published in 2020, Americans ages 18 to 23 lean less conservative than their elders. Republicans in this demographic are more likely than older Republicans to have certain liberal attitudes: about what role government should play in solving problems, about the unfair treatment of Black Americans and about the causes of climate change. Delli Carpini, who chairs Pew’s governing board, says this research was conducted between 2018 and 2019, and that the findings likely haven’t changed much.

Hadriana Lowenkron came to discover this common ground firsthand. She was the only Black student in the civil dialogue seminar and sometimes at ideological odds with Perlman and some of the more conservative-leaning students. She believed, as Perlman did, that the students who enrolled weren’t necessarily the ones who needed to be there. Lowenkron was theoretically open to hearing other perspectives, but until she joined the class, she hadn’t. She’d grown up in the liberal community of Maplewood, N.J., and then entered the similarly liberal bubble of Penn students pursuing an urban studies major. “I don’t think I even hear views that are centrist,” she said early in the semester. “I’ve been comfortable and safe. I’ve been raised to think my opinion’s just right.”

The civil dialogue seminar was challenging. Before, she’d likely question someone’s “character or values” if they made an ignorant or racially insensitive remark. “I’d even throw around, ‘They’re just racist,’ ” she says. “This class taught me sometimes it helps to ask why.”

This came into focus during a series of conversations about how to approach the n-word in an academic context. In recent years, a handful of professors and students had been ostracized or reprimanded for saying the word or reading it aloud — even in a lesson meant to teach about the word’s history. Before, Lowenkron never gave the offending parties the benefit of the doubt. “Some people must not care about the real history,” she’d think. In class, she was able to look more closely at these incidents. She learned that in some cases the professors were using the word specifically to emphasize its negative impact. She disagreed with the approach, but she was now more likely to ask: Where was the communication breakdown? How did the outrage machine spin out of control? She was also able to share how difficult it was to hear the slur, regardless of the context.

A few students in the class initially felt that incidents involving divisive language had ramped up too quickly. Now, some of them had a better understanding; they weren’t just hearing the outrage but the reason behind the outrage.

Similarly, Lowenkron realized that these students weren’t trying to be dismissive of the word’s history. They understood the harm, though maybe in a more abstract way. So there was commonality, but still a gap.

“A lot of times, students will sit and be upset with the way a teacher is handling something, but never are we asked, ‘Well, how would we do it in a way that’s not condescending?’ ” Lowenkron says. “How can you still read the book without throwing a word in students’ faces?”

Lowenkron took up this question in her final project for the class. All students were asked to design a dialogue exercise that applied to everyday situations. Lowenkron’s dialogue brought together a small group of students, faculty and administrators around the question of how or when offensive language might be used in a classroom setting. She envisioned a “brave space” in which participants would discuss their experiences with the word, explore why saying it was of value or not in various contexts, and then use this information to devise a practical approach to teaching.

It was likely, she admits, that consensus would not be reached. But the alternative — simply banning the word — wasn’t a solution. When you did that, the entire conversation devolved to half the room shouting “free speech, free speech.” Before she took the civil dialogue seminar, Lowenkron might have been content to let everybody scream. “I don’t think I would have seen much value in conversation,” she says. Now she sees a practical benefit. “It sometimes helps to see if people are on the same page,” she says. “Because if they are, fundamentally, we can work with that.”

Jennifer Miller’s new book, “First Generation: How Three First-Gen College Students Made It Through Freshman Year,” is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers.

Photo illustrations by CutlerBremmer. Production and set design by Bradley Thordarson.

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