Commentary: Teaching civility in political and civic discourse

Much of today’s political and civic discourse has become a game of quick-draw insults and ludicrous put-downs.

Protesters burn trash cans during the demonstration downtown Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, during the inauguration of President Donald Trump. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

A desperado and a local sheriff slowly pace in opposite directions down a silent street. With a speed that can only come from the knowledge that one’s life is at risk, both men spin on their heels, drawing their pistols. Bam! Both discharge their weapons in near synchronization. One man is killed and the other mortally wounded. Neither man is victorious in this futile duel.

Society today has come a long way from the days of wild-west style showdowns where disagreements are settled with lead; however, many similarities still exist. Much of today’s political and civic discourse has become a game of quick-draw insults and ludicrous put-downs. The only way to change this overwhelming trend is to adjust the education system to promote clear, effective communication and teach students how to disagree in ways that do not revert to personal attacks in which, like the duel, victory is to no avail. The key to success is education that exposes students to civil discourse for their entire school career.

The Utah Common Core for Early Development (Feb. 2013) states that parents and family are a child’s first and most influential teachers. Further, it states that schools should invite parents to on-site programs. Schools, along with their PTAs or PTOs, should schedule seminars to educate parents on the importance of teaching their children how to respectfully disagree with others. By implementing good communication practices in the home, students will be prepared to learn more about civility in elementary, middle, and high school.

Civility lessons at the elementary level should be kept basic. This allows teachers to implement concepts such as the THINK strategy (Are your words True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, or Kind?). This strategy is a simple way to teach students to think about the effect their words can have on others and encourages respectful communication. Establishing respect and awareness builds a solid foundation for more in-depth education.

Middle school students are currently taught the make-up of a structured argument — assertion, reasoning and evidence; however, this rarely extends beyond writing. By sixth grade at the latest, students need to be exposed to actual in-class debates and discussions. These debates should be kept at a basic level and could include topics, such as year-round school, chores at home, or iPhones versus Androids. These simple topics allow the students to debate and exchange ideas without requiring extensive research and analysis. Giving students these opportunities builds a basis for deeper, touchier debate topics.

With no guarantee that all students will continue to college, high school is the last major opportunity to impress upon them the importance of civility. In high school, students need to be taught more in-depth debate guidelines such as Robert’s Rules of Order. These guidelines would be applied by having students frequently debate and discuss topics that are personal to them, such as gun control, immigration policies, or police brutality. The role of the teacher in classroom discourse would be to moderate debates and hold the students to previously taught standards of civility. By understanding and practicing rules of discourse, students will be prepared to appropriately voice their opinion, whether in politics, in the workplace, or in a social setting.

Conducting civic and political discourse with civility is the key to a successful democracy. Educating students is the best way to engrain civil practices in their minds. Development and implementation of this program will begin gradually, but each following generation will take the effect a step further until the day when wild-west style duels of words become a thing of the past.

Craig Ritzman

Craig Ritzman, Henefer, is a student at North Summit High School. This essay was the winner in a contest sponsored by the Honors College at Westminster College.

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