We see it every day: increasingly polarized and unfiltered outbursts on hot-button issues, shouting back-and-forth with neither side giving credit to the arguments of the other, and falsehoods repeated with assertive tones. This isn’t a children’s playground, it’s the world around us.
Is there room for civil discourse in today’s democracy? How do we prepare students to engage in public discourse with strategies for success and resilience?
Ted Hunt, an Allendale Columbia History teacher for 36 years, takes on this charge vigorously, helping to coordinate student examination and participation in public discourse in his popular Democracy and Discourse class. Students in that class had a set of Letters to the Editor published in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle on October 27th. But it doesn’t stop there. Ted has been helping to coordinate a civil discourse program, the Forums, for all Upper School students for the past 10 years. Allendale Columbia’s Class of 2019 recently demonstrated their increasing proficiency in these areas at the Senior Forum on October 25th, where they addressed one of the hottest issues of our time, immigration.
In some years, students need to be encouraged to participate. This year, perhaps as an indication of the increasing frustration with the state of discourse in the country, interest was high. “It was fantastic this year – nine kids stepped up. They drew lots for the five positions, and the other four were so interested, they wanted to be aides,” Hunt said. Aides conducted research and helped craft messages for the lead speaker. “They worked really well together.”
The American Psychological Association recently presented a “National Conversation on Civility” at The George Washington University. Co-hosted by the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD), the event was a wide-ranging discussion of the reasons for the decline in civility and mutual respect in public discourse. APA’s 2017 Stress in America survey found that nearly 60 percent of Americans felt stressed because of current social divisiveness, “which no doubt has contributed to the high levels of negativity in our civil discourse. Living with this type of stress is not good for our emotional and physical health,” remarked APA President Arthur C. Evans, PhD.
The National Institute for Civil Discourse has even received calls from people unable to interact with relatives at holiday dinners, religious leaders dealing with congregation members not speaking to each other, and corporations whose staffs have not returned to pre-election levels of productivity.
AC tries to address this by teaching respectful ways to conduct public discourse and giving students opportunities to practice it.
Students select the topics, either from issues they want to talk about or from suggestions Mr. Hunt makes. “There’s always some topic in the summer that dominates the news which usually provides the theme of the Senior Forum,” Mr. Hunt noted. Preparation begins about six weeks before the topic is discussed, with milestones along the way. The Junior Class has recently begun preparations for their Forum on December 13th with the topic, “Should Celebrities Speak Out on Political Issues?”. The students meet during their Club Block, and assign roles or points of view. “In some years, the Forum is more of a debate and students are asked to take on opposing viewpoints, even if it doesn’t represent their own personal views,” Mr. Hunt explained. “Every four years, during presidential elections, they’re encouraged to do a mock presidential debate. That’s often challenging, and we sometimes see that students mistake the role with the debater’s personal position. But usually, as in the last one when Phelan Conheady ‘17 portrayed Donald Trump, students know the difference between the student’s personal position and the candidate’s position.”
After assigning roles, the next meeting is a discussion on the topic, and the following week they need to have an outline prepared. Then they start writing. They produce two drafts and have a final rehearsal, receiving feedback at each stage. The day before the Forum, Mr. Hunt asks them questions to prepare for the types of questions they might receive from the audience. “Speeches are easier, they’re in the students’ control. But their ability to address the questions often determines the winner.”
The seniors always have the first Forum. Cassidy Draper served as moderator, setting up the discussion with a recap of the history of immigration in the U.S. and introducing the participants. Nate Pifer, assisted by James Morrell, spoke on the topic of open borders. Nicole Filippi spoke about the necessity of enforcing current immigration law, assisted by Sasha Furdey. Mikayla Gross discussed the history and modern impact of ICE, with Tsioianiio Galban as her aide. Finally, Misha Zain, aided by Naomi Taggart, spoke on the controversial family separation policies. Several students talked about their personal and family connections with their topics.
A panel of judges, usually consisting of alumni and former teachers, evaluates each performance on:
- content (knowledge, preparation, logic, accuracy of the role, understanding of other speakers’ points),
- delivery (poise, pacing, diction, expression), and
- responses to questions (same as above criteria, but also consistency with role, wit and charm, and ability to think on one’s feet).
Recent judges have included Ebets Judson, Ken McCurdy, Toddy Hunter, and Lorraine Van Meter-Cline. At the end of the year, one class is selected for the Class of ’57 Forum Award, with a plaque commemorating their award.
Forums started at Columbia School in the 1940s, well before the merger with Allendale. Each of the four grades in Upper School hold a Forum, typically putting four students on stage with a moderator to present well-researched and carefully crafted viewpoints on a common subject and address questions from the audience. In addition to the Junior Forum on December 13th, the Sophomore Forum will be held on March 6th, and the ninth graders take their turn on April 11th.
“The all-time most famous forum performance, at least in my years here, was by Kristen Wiig,” related Mr. Hunt, speaking of the former AC student who went on to star in Saturday Night Live and other films. “She was kind of a quiet girl in her day-to-day life here, but when you put her on stage, she was a dynamo. She even dressed as and took on the mannerisms of the role she played,” which was, as might be expected, somewhat provocative.
The 2012 Senior Form, which was held in October 2011, was about the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks and how 9/11 changed American foreign policy and culture. Mr. Hunt related, “Those students were in second grade when it happened, and at the time of the attack, President George W. Bush was in a second grade classroom, so it was particularly meaningful.”
Speaking of another memorable forum, Mr. Hunt said, “In the mid-90s, the ninth grade class had five girls speaking on the dangers of negative body image on teenage girls. They renamed it ‘The Freshwoman Forum’.”
Democracy and Discourse
Mr. Hunt’s one-semester course, Democracy and Discourse, examines the ways in which public discourse is conducted through both written and oral expression. After looking at the First Amendment to the Constitution and its implications for public discourse in the United States, students then look at the question of how one judges the information that is presented in our nation’s public discourse, most notably via the internet. They explore the various modes of written discourse, examining pieces already published and producing their own. The class also examines oral public discourse, including speeches, debates, and public demonstrations. The course finishes by evaluating the accusation that free speech is under assault at the nation’s universities. Issues such as race, religion, and American politics form the core of the material, as they evaluate the arguments at the heart of the tension between individual freedom and the desire for a civil society.
The D&C recently published letters by Mr. Hunt and three students as they put their learning on written public discourse into practice. Evelyn Van Arsdale ’20 wrote a letter suggesting that Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day be renamed American Discovery Day. Cassidy Draper ’19 submitted a letter about the opioid epidemic. Bobby Shearer ’19 wrote about the benefits of protecting NFL quarterbacks.
Are Forums and classes like Mr. Hunt’s improving the state of public discourse? “If you take a look at society as a whole today,” Mr. Hunt said, “you can’t say that what we’re doing here at Allendale Columbia is having much of an effect. But education is tricky; you don’t see the results for years. The best we can do is ask, ‘Are our kids doing it the right way?’.” On that count, seeing how students are conducting themselves at school, at college, and in public life, with alumni like Matt Spaull ’01, Matt Zeller ’00, and even Kristen Wiig ’91 as examples, AC seems to be making good progress.
Posted in: Authentic Learning, Eleventh Grade, Highlights, Ninth Grade, Tenth Grade, Twelfth Grade, Upper School