Monday, March 19, 2012

Civic Engagement

We have a very active and respected Center for Civic Engagement on our campus.  The Center has undertaken many worthwhile initiatives including the development of “a brief workshop for students who will be working with off campus communities.”  This workshop, which is slightly over an hour in length, examines how students feel about working with off-campus communities and how these communities feel about working with students.  The attitudes stressed to the students include “being open minded,” “being respectful and appreciative,” “being humble,” “being responsible –sticking to commitments.”  Civic Engagement is fostering civility as a prime objective, and values articulated in the workshop are values we should be able to agree on. 

More and more, however, these values have under assault.  For example the recent comments by Rush Limbaugh are totally reprehensible and an apology alone is hardly sufficient to right the wrong involved.  Referring to a student as a slut and a prostitute because of her support for contraceptives being covered by employee health plans crosses any reasonable line of civility.  The student involved attends Georgetown University and the President of Georgetown, as reported in Inside Higher Education, issued a statement that stands up for values we should all endorse.  President DeGioia noted that the student “was respectful, sincere …spoke with conviction… and was a model of civil discourse” while some who opposed her position, including Rush Limbaugh, “responded with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student.” President DeGioia did not endorse the student’s point of view, only her right to free expression (and civil discourse) and he did so in a very elegant and persuasive manner. He quoted from Saint Augustine: “Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance.  Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth.  Let us seek it together as something that is known to neither of us.  For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there is no bold assumption that it is entirely discovered and possessed.”

I often blame politicians for what seems to be an ever more pervasive assault on civil discourse.  However, the comments last week from a faculty member at Rochester in regard to the Rush Limbaugh remarks, reminded me that higher education is also not immune from those who undercut civility.  And even more unfortunate (given my academic discipline), is that the faculty member in question is an economist and I always expect more and better from economists.  The faculty member at Rochester stated that the Georgetown student’s position “deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered.”  He goes on to note that “To treat it with respect would be a travesty.”  Joel Seligman, the President of Rochester responded well by stating “I am outraged that any professor would demean a student in this fashion” and he also noted that “To openly ridicule, mock, or jeer a student in this way is about the most offensive thing a professor can do…we are here to educate, to nuture, to inspire, not to engage in character assassination.”

We are running out of time to prevent more strident views from dominating more and more of the public discourse.  We all need to stand up whenever and wherever the need arises for civility and civil discourse.

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