The Louis Round Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

A New Approach to Building Lifelong Skills

TAKEAWAY: Only one college student in five feels ready to present a position, support it with facts, and defend it or modify it through respectful discussion.  The UNC Program for Public Discourse articulates a new approach to helping students acquire and hone these skills.

The simplest definition of a “need” is the gap between two conditions: what the current state is now, and what it should be in the future. At the University of North Carolina, a regular reassessment of its general curriculum revealed a crying need. According to national surveys, only about 20 percent of college students feel adequately prepared to explain an idea, support it with facts, and sharpen it or even change it through discussion and debate. Chris Clemens, an astrophysicist who is now the senior associate dean for research and innovation at UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences, says that the gap between what students want in terms of this life skill, and what universities were able to provide, signaled a deficiency that employers increasingly feel they have to remediate. “Education systems are falling short,” says Clemens.  

This need led to UNC’s Program for Public Discourse, which is slated for full-scale launch this fall. The goal is to arm students with the knowledge to participate constructively in deliberative forums, such as dialogue and debate, especially with those who may hold opposing viewpoints. Through grants and the wide availability of “off the shelf” tools, the program will encourage volunteering professors to integrate evidence-proven methods of civil discourse in their classroom. Clemens, who served as acting director of the program before Sarah Treul Roberts took over as director, summarizes it as “building a capacity, not a curriculum.”

One reason that students feel unprepared for give-and-take deliberation is that they don’t know how to structure a conversation that may raise opposing viewpoints. “Most of us know how to have good conversations until disagreement breaks out or the topic becomes heated,” says Clemens. “Then people trip over sensitivity or offensiveness, and productive conversation goes into free fall.” Adhering to evidence-based structures in dialogue can keep the tone respectful and the channels of communication open towards a solution.  

Genuine dialogue is about seeking the truth, not about winning. People lose the desire to find the truth when conversation becomes competition.

Clemens uses a sports analogy to illustrate the importance of structure. “If you put people on a football field and just tell them, ‘Get the ball to the other end,’ things are likely to become ugly. But if you structure the play, the contest is fun. And if people are being harmed, you modify the rules and make things safer.” 

Although conversations are usually less dramatic than scoring touchdowns, the principles are the same. Says Clemens, “If you have a set of norms that everyone can follow, you’d be intentionally building structure that people can adhere to.” He points out that some people equate a structured conversation with the formal rules and conventions of debate, and clarifies: “Genuine dialogue is about seeking the truth, not about winning. People lose the desire to find the truth when conversation becomes competition.” 

The evolution of the Program for Public Discourse is itself a case study in productive discourse. The concept had a rocky start, including concerns from faculty members and progressive groups from inside and outside of the UNC community, that it could be ideologically driven. The program developers listened, answered concerns in detail and with respect for those voicing them, admitted some initial missteps, and explained that like most new ideas, the concept evolved through discussion. The six-member faculty advisory council represents viewpoints all along the political spectrum. One of the program’s designers and a member of the faculty advisory committee, Larry Grossberg, a well-known professor of communication, noted that he’s long been a “leading voice for progressive politics in the academy” and goes on to emphasize that the program is not defined by any ideology. Instead, he writes, “the program is about the processes and practices of communication, specifically how to encourage and engage argument, debates and contested ideas in our pedagogy.”

Funded by grants from private donors, who must agree to respect its independence, the Program for Public Discourse will go into full swing in fall 2020, offering grants and other help to faculty who volunteer to incorporate concepts of structured deliberation into their courses. 

Says Christian Lundberg, an associate professor of communication who helped design the program, the ultimate goal is to meet the need defined by students themselves, “to contribute to robust democracy and a vital public sphere by intentionally building their capacities for public life.”