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Could schools cure our uncivil discourse?

After apparently spending the weekend, as I did, watching the Congressional debate over health care, former diplomat and teacher Dave Rabadan of Annandale asked me this good question:

"What has happened to the teaching of critical skills, decision-making
based on weighing alternative policies or courses of action, and
respect for those who hold differing opinions on local and national
issues? And what about common sense in lieu of a remora-like
clinging to philosophies or tactics that specialize in denigrating,
if not demonizing opponents? How can we better teach and practice
civility in public discourse? Where do we draw the line on tactics
that thrive on ad hominem attacks, ridicule of opponents, and (most
worrisome) shouting down the opposition so that the other side is
unable to present its positions?"

My view is that the politicians who hurl insults and distortions at each other know how to argue in a more civilized and accurate way, but have learned their point of view gets little attention unless they heat it up. But maybe i am wrong.

Our high schools don't spend nearly as much time as they should having students practice public presentations, and intelligent debates. Some styles of the formal debates in which high school teams compete seem to respect rules of civil discourse, but others, at least ones I have seen, do not, or are just weird, like the rapid-speak style, whatever they call it.

If we had a bit more time in the school day, a favorite topic of mine, teachers would be encouraged to let students research issues, take different sides, and discuss them in a civil way. Good teachers could demonstrate the power of conceding points to your opponent. They might even experiment with forming a truly bipartisan mini-congress and try to work out a health care plan, or reduced budget, or modified Bowl Championship Series, that takes good ideas from all sides.

The more students experience the sense of accomplishment from a meeting of minds, perhaps the less respect they will have for office holders who listen to their media experts telling them you have to hit the enemy hard or lose the game.

As Rabadan said in a final remark: "All the math and science capacity and expertise will pale in importance if we lose the basic respect we must extend in debate -
even to those with whom we profoundly disagree."

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By Jay Mathews  | March 23, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  could schools cure uncivil politics, politicians scoring points instead of exchanging views, teaching students how to argue respectfully  
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Posted by: victorlowe23 | March 23, 2010 5:45 AM | Report abuse

Hi Jay,
I just wrote something for the People's Daily online (over here in China) about how disgusting it is to watch what America has become. To be sure, there's plenty wrong with communism; unfortunately, America is teaching the world all the things that are wrong with democracy.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | March 23, 2010 5:59 AM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, even our discourse about school reform is anything but civil. Many adults aren't teaching by example.

Posted by: ClausvonZastrow | March 23, 2010 6:20 AM | Report abuse


Clearly a worthwhile topic but really, one more straw on the backs of public school teachers? One more social policy component they must squeeze into their already overcrowded school day? Someone needs to start calling parents out for some of this.

And as for, "...respect for those who hold differing opinions on local and national
issues," AKA the Tea Party performance of this past weekend? The only thing noticeably absent from the demonstration of this group of radicals was their hoods. They're an embarrassment to the millions of their fellow citizens. Their performance this past weekend was not unlike the Neanderthal Southerners in their charade for "state sovereignty" in the 60's, blatantly denying the civil rights of millions of Black Americans.

Posted by: phoss1 | March 23, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

At some point you need to start talking about what you are willing to take out of what you expect of schools. I think your idea here is a good one. But we can't keep piling on to schools without removing some things. The new nationwide standards do not help this. If we want to focus on skills, as you suggest here, we have to be willing to let go of some content. Schools can't do everything, even with longer days.

Posted by: Jenny04 | March 23, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Teaching social skills and how to exchange ideas in a civil way are taught to students for small group work. Research has shown kids retain more learning when they discuss what they have learned or even how they are learning. Of course, teaching kids to cooperate in small groups is easier said than done and with pressures to improve standardized test scores they are seen as "too noisy" or a "waste of time" by some people in the schools.

I am sure the politicians know how to discuss things in a civil way. They are trying to get sound bites that will look good to their constituents. Since their constituents hold the same opinions, they like to hear their congressmen attack the other side.

What I find ironic about the rudeness we are seeing now is that it is the supposedly conservative group that is breaking the rules. I do not consider these people "conservative", because a conservative person would try to conserve the old rules of the system. I would say they would be better labeled "radical" or "rebellious". I find it to be another example of bad behavior for our young people.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 23, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Rudeness is hardly confined to those on the conservative end of the political spectrum. The conservatives may be maddest now because they are out of power, but just think back a few years to how the liberals acted while the Republicans controlled the White House and Congress.

The biggest contributor to incivility in public discourse has been the rise of 24 hour cable news, talk radio, and the blogosphere. Before those, blowhards like Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow would've had no bigger audience than their local bar. Today their hot air reaches millions....

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 23, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

for phoss1 and Jenny04, I sympathize. You have seen me complain about sacrificing class time for more PE and for watching the president's speech. But presentation skills are at the top of the list of things that both post-high school employers and colleges say they want to see more of in high school grads, so i figured this was a vital skill that would help everyone, even the country.

I appreciate victorlowe23 appreciating my impending Medicare status.

for patrickmattimore1, the class struggle family is impressed with yr globe trotting. First San Francisco, then the south of France, now China. I would love to get a copy of what ran in the PD online. I used to read the PD every day in the 70s and 80s, a real chore. But I hear it is getting better. They certainly didnt have anyone like you on their list of commentators.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 23, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

As a high school history teacher I used to use mock trials to teach both content and conceptual understanding. For instance, we put Lenin, Mao and Louis XVI on trial. These exercises forced teams to research not only their side, but also anticipate the issues of the other side and prepare responses and rebuttals, all in the framework of a trial that required respect and decorum.

Posted by: gideon4ed | March 23, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Preparing students to engage in civil discourse, to participate in the processes of democratic citizenship, is our schools most important mission. The dumbing down of our curriculum to meet requirements of simplistic tests has reduced attention to this essential study and helped create the poor reasoning and ugly behavior characterizing too much of current national policy disputes.

Posted by: clarkd1 | March 23, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

"What has happened to the teaching of critical skills, decision-making
based on weighing alternative policies or courses of action,
The accepted educational policies of this nation are "test them until they drop" and "teach to the test" and Mr. Mathews wonders that students are not being taught to develop the skills of thinking.

Apparently those adults who have crafted and accepted the educational policies of this nation none of the skills that Mr. Mathews now wants to teach to students.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 23, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse


This is something I try to teach in my English classes when we study logic, fallacies of thinking, and persuasive speaking. Unfortunately, teaching at three schools now, I can see that this sort of teaching is really not standard in my discipline. Too many English teachers see this as a social studies topic, a topic for those in an elective speech class, or just want to focus on the fiction literature they enjoyed in college rather than using current events or rhetoric in the classroom. Unfortunately, many of the state standards are written to support these viewpoints. I find myself having to work to find the time to do these kind of things.

When did I start doing this? It was after I taught English AP Language and Composition for a year. I saw how much it opened up some of my students (particularly boys) who had been disenchanted with literature study and were just in the AP class as they were the "AP kids." I no longer teach AP at the school where I am now (which I sorely miss), but I have really benefited as a teacher from teaching civil discourse as part of reading & writing. But sadly, it has always made me the odd-duck English teacher curriculum-wise wherever I go.

Posted by: aceproffitt | March 23, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

There are great programs all over the country that do just what you are calling for - one of those is the 'We the People...the Citizen and the Constitution' program sponsored by the Center for Civic Education. I've been teaching the program and coaching a team for 11 years - it's an amazing and life altering experience for my students each and every year.
Jay, you should go to their National Finals competition in April in D.C. - you'll be impressed to say the least.
( for more info)

Posted by: fox293 | March 23, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

Let's make this even simpler: All students should take the big 3 of science: Chem, Bio, and Physics. Next, everyone should take mathematics through Analytic Geometry and possibly Algebra 2. These courses demand deductive and inductive reasoning, which are grounded in FACTS or observations of reality. With this foundation people can argue dispassionately and effectively, and most importantly NOT BE FOOLED by the b.s and okey-doke so many people seek to run on us today.

Posted by: pdfordiii | March 23, 2010 8:51 PM | Report abuse

Oh, for heaven's sake. Since when have we had civil discourse in this country? When Jefferson--as Secretary of State--paid Phillippe Freneau out of federal funds to run an opposition newspaper attacking Washington and Hamilton?

Or would it be when Preston Brooks beat the bejesus out of Charles Sumner with his cane and then got re-elected, with his constituents sending him brand new canes bearing the words "Hit him again"?

No, I know. It would be when LBJ ran the Daisy ad against Barry Goldwater, an ad so inflammatory that he was forced to pull it immediately--but of course, it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Please, people. Stop pretending that past discourse was pleasanter than the present. The public is more engaged and more active than at any time in the past century. Enjoy it for what it is and don't delude yourself that it's gotten worse.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 24, 2010 12:46 AM | Report abuse

What Cal_Lanier wrote to which I'll add it would be nice if the public education system taught kids to read. That seems like both a more modest and a more appropriate task for the institution then teaching kids to be civil.

Posted by: allenm1 | March 24, 2010 8:30 AM | Report abuse

I think this is outside the realm of what public education should be.

I have found an entire subgroup of what I would call False Christians or Christian Fascists in this area. I've been in perfectly normal conversations when they lash out at people who don't believe as they do- gays, interracial relationships, "socialists," non-Christians, etc. I mean people who have no problem using the most vile unpleasant language and yet hide behind it as being "politically incorrect."

When I was a kid the conservatives were country clubbers who wore suits who would never stoop so low or be so low class and held a pitying view of non-Christians. I could deal with that. I can't deal with an uneducated former meth-addict who doesn't wash his hair and barely reads that I should go back to Russia if I support healthcare like they have in Massachusetts or Hawaii. It's long past funny and is just scary.

Posted by: bbcrock | March 24, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

I can say, as a former debated and former high school debate coach, that you do not need a formal debate program to teach these skills.

The basic ideas of of constitutes evidence, what constitutes valid argument and how to acknowledge and refute your opponent's arguments is a basic element of all disciplines. Math taught properly does this when it teaches how to write up a proof and the importance of showing one's work. Science does this with the scientificis method and the elements of a lab report (e.g. methods, data, conclusion). English and social studies have the same responsiblities, even if the evidence and arguments are not quite as objective and clear cut.

So, this is not a new lesson. And it should not be segregated to some special debate unit or particular projects. This should infuse the entire curriculum. How each disciplines deals with this is one the hand handful of most fundamental lessons to learned when studying that discipline/subject.

As for the "werd" debates you've seen? Well, that's just one of three style formal high school debate. It's no weirder than any sport, or year book or msot other extra-curricular activity. It is really just your own ignorance that makes it seems weird to you. Before cast aspirsions on it, perhaps you could talk to someone with a history in it about the lessons and values it imparts (e.g. hard work, focus, expertise, research, responding to the particular argument made by opponents, etc..)

By the way, talking that fast is called "spreading." And calling things that other people do that you don't like or understand "weird" is called "rude." It also is called "self-centered." One might easily label it "uncivil," but no one would call it "civilized and accurate."

Posted by: ceolaf3 | March 24, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I love how a debate coach sees the answer to everything in debate coaching. Come on, you have to admit that's pretty "funny."

Posted by: bbcrock | March 24, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Dear Jay Mathews,

The rapid-speak style of debating you refer to is referred to as Parli or policy debate, I think. There's a great documentary on it, with ample reference & discussion to how schools fail to provide the same kind of engage debate does for the kids who love it:

"Debate is one of those things that gets kids hooked on learning and gets them to stay in high school, stay in college." — is another documentary currently in production, confusingly with the same title.

I debated on the university levelv in Europe, including three European (EUDC) and one World championship (WUDC), and can only recommend to watch that first movie.

Posted by: cervus | March 24, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Although I teach in college now (credential students), I use the current discourse displayed in the media as examples of how not to have a civil discussion. But we don't stop there, how to we develop these in our students/children. Too often we wait until they are in high school, but as a elementary teacher (K-8), I don't have to add anything to my curriculum or take away anything because how to talk with each other begins day one. As for where, the books children read, the social studies, the science curriclum - all of the curriclum have ample opportunities to discuss important issues that relate to today.

The problem I often see is that school administrators want teachers to shy away from anything that might be controversial! What you see today in adults is a shameful example of what can happen when we are explicit in teaching civil discourse. Instead we let them learn from the adults they see and hear.

Posted by: lnowell | March 24, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

excuse the typos...I am sitting in the airport and juggling luggage and crowds. I did not catch my typos before I hit submit.

One more point - although debate has its place - the object, too often, of debate is to win. My focus is on dialogue - where we work together to understand an issue, the range of factors contributiing to the issue, the various positions on the issue, the possible solutions and consequences of our solutions. We are parters in an intellectual inquiry. And yes even elementary children can engage in this kind of discouse.

Posted by: lnowell | March 24, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Teaching civility is a great idea, but our problem right now is not a generalized lack of civility, but an out of control proto-fascist right wing that believes it can use intimidation, threats, and violence to achieve its goals. Conservatives may claim that there are liberals who get just as "excited," but nothing compares to this new crew who thought nothing of attending public forums with assault weapons, carrying signs with depictions of the president as a witch doctor or with a Hitler mustache, or hurling invective at blacks, gays, and even a man with Parkinson's Disease (I thought they liked people with disabilities).
The American left has not behaved this way, and it's time to acknowledge that our problem is not one of manners, but one of an unbalanced, paranoid, dangerous conservative movement.

Posted by: szcarrol | March 24, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

If adults continue to be such poor role models, it gets harder and harder to blame the youth for copying them. They learn by example and lately, the examples have been pretty disgraceful.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | March 24, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Education takes place in communities that include families, businesses, churches, schools and social organizations of all types. The most important goals have to do with providing opportunities and guidance for effective interaction with others in society. When the task is effectively outlined and parameters established, the schools will turn out good citizens.

Those who want to know more about the goals, need go no further that the very brief Preamble to the Constitution. It clearly states the six main reasons for writing that document.

Those six ideas provide the framework, but not the blueprint, for what should be the best government on earth.

Posted by: usher1 | March 24, 2010 5:36 PM | Report abuse

George W. Bush was never compared to Hitler? There isn't a subgroup of atheists who are every bit as intolerant (if not more so) than those bbcrock calls "Christian fascists"? Right...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 24, 2010 6:52 PM | Report abuse

I love how so many liberals I know are all in a panic over a few displayed weapons at "tea parties" but they say nothing about the narco-terrorism that is spilling over our border and actually KILLING U.S. citizens.

I'm way more worried about being the victim of violence from some Latin American drug cartel than I am from a handful of yahoos at a "tea party".

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 24, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

I think that bbcrock has the causality backwards.

I coached debate BECAUSE I saw these things. And I think that there are great lessons in playing sports, doing yearbook and most other extracurricular activities that require a committment from the students, and even some of those that don't.

I did math team, too, but I don't think that that is as valuable for students. And so, I did not coach it.

Extra-currcular activities are really good at engaging students. They often teach lessons about hard work and failure in way that we cannot in our classrooms. (That is, kids who work hard kinda have to pass their classes, but athletes who work hard don't always win.) They can teach about teamwork, the possibility of playing a meaningful (and rewarding) role without being star. There are lessons about hard work can be fun, etc. etc..

Posted by: ceolaf3 | March 24, 2010 7:41 PM | Report abuse

The problem is the Democrats cheated. Having lost one of the 60 seats in the Senate that they needed for major reform, they pushed their bill through with naked Chicago politics, instead of waiting a few months, winning back the seat and passing the bill. If they were sure the bill was popular, why not wait, and if the bill is unpopular, why push it? The fillibuster exists to prevent situations just like this. Incivility will rule until November. We can just home Sarah Palin plays by the rules when she is President.

Posted by: mbc7 | March 24, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

I hope to God that the GOP can find somebody better than Sarah Palin to run in 2012. If it's Palin vs. Obama, I'm voting 3rd party, probably Libertarian...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 24, 2010 10:56 PM | Report abuse

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