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Civility in the Classroom in the Age of Trump

April 28, 2017

By: Dr. Jeremy Mayer, Associate Professor, Schar School of Policy and Government

(This opinion piece is solely representative of the opinions of the author. Should you have any questions or comments, please email Dr. Mayer.)

Graduate students in our hyper partisan polarized era may be worried about how civil discussions can take place in the classroom. This is particularly true at a place like Mason, which has a diverse faculty, many with strong political views and identities. In truth, it can be hard to have a civil discussion about reproductive access policy or some other controversial topic, without descending into a CNN style shouting match.

The keys are civility and respect.

On the first day of each class I teach, I have a few things I always cover in addition to the syllabus, the assignments, the books, and the topic. I warn students that in a course on public policy and politics, sensitive issues are almost certain to arise, such as the death penalty, torture, genocide, abortion, sexual orientation, religious freedom, prejudice, affirmative action, or similar matters. I ask them to treat each other with respect, that I welcome strong views, but I insist that the class be a place where the HOLDERS of all opinions and views are treated with respect, even if one cannot respect the view itself. I also issue a cautionary note that they cannot assume that my views are what I am voicing at any time, since sometimes in the absence of a particular view, I will articulate it with passion to give it a fair hearing.

It is hard to anticipate sometimes when the most sensitive topics may arise. I was teaching a Master’s class on foreign policy almost a decade ago, and I wanted students to understand the moral case for the invasion of Iraq, to see it as Bush saw it, which is hard to do now as our memory of the war is so colored by the failure to find WMD and the disastrous occupation. I knew that Bush was very affected by conversations with Iraqi dissidents and their stories of torture, and we watched a short video put out by a conservative group showing in graphic detail the torture Saddam’s agents inflicted in his prisons. In the discussion afterward, several liberal critics were attacking the idea that Bush invaded to stop torture. At some point, a usually quiet Asian man made a comment, on the edge of tears. He and his brother had been victims of torture in Cambodia, and his brother had not survived. In my opinion, the previous students had not meant to indicate that torture was not an important issue, not a terrible human rights violation, but he had felt that way, and felt that he had to make them understand the grave moral evil torture represents.

As painful as that moment was, no one left the classroom, and I think it was an important lesson about the gravity of issues that can arise in a policy classroom.

Since the election of President Trump, I have struggled with my own civility. I have, I think, moved to the left over the course of the last 10-15 years of American politics. I was previously a liberal Republican with libertarian instincts, then an independent, but the war in Iraq and the deepening alliance between the Christian Right and the Republican Party, as well as certain fiscal issues, have pushed me towards the Democrats. Still, I am proud that at various times I have been confused for a conservative, a socialist, and most points in between. I have been asked to be a faculty sponsor for the College Republicans and the College Democrats. I have always been able to articulate the Republican and the Democratic message with some fairness as necessary in the classroom.

But Trump tests civility in the classroom in two key ways. First, the man himself regularly violates civility norms in American political life. His mockery of a physically disabled reporter, his gross behavior and words towards women, his penchant for personal attacks on political opponents, federal judges, and even decorated war heroes and their families, are simply unprecedented in American history. Throughout the presidential debates in the primaries and the general election, his style of personal attacks and bombast were the precise opposite of the kind of discussion I hope to foster. When we see that style rise to victory, it becomes harder to argue it is essential in the classroom.

The second way in which Trump tests civility is more personal for me. I have said for years to policy students that I don’t care if they are liberal or conservative, that I want them to learn how to use data and logic to contribute to the policy debate, as analysts, advocates, or administrators. I’ve spent 13 years at GMU’s policy program, telling people that the type of expertise we teach is valuable. I had little trouble in the election season of 2012 talking about the policy proposals of Mitt Romney with respect. Romney had a good policy shop, and his ideas merited debate and discussion.

By contrast, Trump’s ideas are seldom more complicated than a slogan, and reveal little commitment to underlying principles or ideology. So it is sometimes hard for me to treat his proposals and ideas with civility because it seems as if his whole presentation of self represents an attack on expertise, on knowledge itself.

But part of civility is treating the ideas you find least palatable with respect. It’s definitely a work in progress for me, but I remain committed to that goal, even if the idea or political movement under discussion seems to be opposed to civility and reasoned debate.

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