The Importance of Civil Discourse

By Kathleen Nugent, DFER New Jersey State Director

A few weeks ago, Georgetown University President John DeGioia issued a statement in response to the attacks on Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student who testified before Congress about proposed regulations around contraceptive coverage. Ms. Fluke, he noted, "was respectful, sincere, and spoke with conviction. She provided a model of civil discourse. This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people." His letter continued:

One need not agree with her substantive position to support her right to respectful free expression. And yet, some of those who disagreed with her position -- including Rush Limbaugh and commentators throughout the blogosphere and in various other media channels -- responded with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student.

In our vibrant and diverse society, there always are important differences that need to be debated, with strong and legitimate beliefs held on all sides of challenging issues. The greatest contribution of the American project is the recognition that together, we can rely on civil discourse to engage the tensions that characterize these difficult issues, and work towards resolutions that balance deeply held and different perspectives. We have learned through painful experience that we must respect one another and we acknowledge that the best way to confront our differences is through constructive public debate. At times, the exercise of one person's freedom may conflict with another's. As Americans, we accept that the only answer to our differences is further engagement.

The timing and content of President DeGioia's letter feels particularly relevant to recent education reform debates. At all levels of policy discourse, from local to state to federal, too often participants generalize, distort, and otherwise manipulate the facts. This diverts focus from the actual priority - improving student outcomes.

In New Jersey, for example, we face an antiquated tenure system everyone agrees must be reformed to elevate the teaching profession and take into account student achievement. Despite this unanimous agreement, the discussion around the specifics often degenerates into fabrications, exaggerations to incite fear, and overall unhelpful deviations from core issues. At a recent public hearing on Senator Teresa Ruiz's strong tenure reform proposal in NJ, the vast majority of those who spoke exemplified the model of discourse President DeGioia calls for. However, once outside the state house, various interests used the media and their communications to misrepresent the conversation. This is happening to the statewide charter debate as well. In Newark, public hearings on Superintendent Cami Anderson's proposed reform plans too often devolve into meaningless name-calling that dishonors the children we fail every day with an inadequate system. The urgency does not match up with the wasted energy and distractions.

President DeGioia concluded:

If we, instead, allow coarseness, anger -- even hatred -- to stand for civil discourse in America, we violate the sacred trust that has been handed down through the generations beginning with our Founders. The values that hold us together as a people require nothing less than eternal vigilance. This is our moment to stand for the values of civility in our engagement with one another.

Our students, teachers, school leaders, parents, and policymakers deserve a higher level of civil discourse across the board. While we can and will continue to have disagreements, allowing communications to devolve into unproductive distortions prevents progress toward achieving our collective goals.

Prior to joining DFER in February 2010, Kathleen Nugent supported the growth of TEAM Charter Schools, the region of KIPP schools in Newark, New Jersey, for almost two years in their development department. Before TEAM, Kathleen worked at The MCJ Amelior Foundation for five years. Read more about Kathleen here.