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Civil Dialogue

Danny Stock

Last summer, High School history teacher Sue Ikenberry attended the Cato Institute’s Sphere Summit, a gathering of right-leaning and libertarian thinkers seeking to foster civil dialogue. While not a community of her political peers, Sue returned having “developed a more healthy respect for that point of view.” Her conference attendance served in part to prepare Sue to co-lead this February’s Minimester course entitled “A View from the Other Side” with High School history Lisa Rauschart and High School English teacher Michael Manson.

Through discussions in her history classes over the last few years, Sue has realized how little civil discourse students actually hear in this current political age. “Students hear [President Trump refer to Former Vice President Joe Biden as] ‘Sleepy Joe’ and they think that’s what politics is,” Sue said. In contrast, organizers at the Sphere Summit made efforts to model civil dialogue for teachers so that they in turn could model it for students.

Sue explained that the conference sought to demonstrate that our democratic society could still grapple with these political disagreements civilly. “Right now, we don’t,” Sue explained. “At the conference, we heard from all kinds of people who modeled civil discourse. Liberals and libertarians took turns explaining each other’s positions in the best possible way. While I did not return a libertarian, I learned ways that we can demonstrate [political] disagreements without tearing each other up.”

Our students, “who are real humanitarians, passionate about social justice and making the world better,” benefit by developing a respect for the free market point of view. For those ideologically opposed—“at least they will understand what it is that they disagree with,” she said. At the end of the day, Sue hopes students reach the realization that many of the people they will speak to across different political inclinations are also “eager to make the world better—just with a different sense of how that might be done.”

Over the course of the minimester, Sue, Lisa, Michael, and special guests explored the other side of the political, social, economic world beyond the “typical GDS view of things.” A variety of speakers, from “explainer” journalists and commentators to those who inhabit the conservative spectrum, engaged with the group as they dove deeply into the current political landscape and the operative theme of, "How did we get here?" 

GDS parent Jennifer Griffin (Annalise Myre ’19 and Amelia Myre ’20) and alum parent Juan Williams (Regan Herald ’99), both journalists and political analysts for Fox News, spoke to the group. The students also engaged in conversation with Kate Bennett of CNN (author of Free Melania) and conservative Republican freelance writer for The Washington Post Gary Abernathy

They also journeyed outward, exploring the world beyond the Beltway and the “GDS bubble.” The group traveled to Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania to spend the day at Messiah College with John Fea, a professor of American history at the school and author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. John Fea published this story about his day with the students and faculty. In his piece, he lauded the importance of civil dialogue across lines of difference. He closed with this moment: “At the end of the day one of the students asked me for some tips about how to overcome the divisiveness and partisanship in American culture today. I suggested that we need more days like this one! She agreed. As these kids head off to college and find themselves in positions where they will be able to change the world, I hope they will remember their visit to Messiah College and their experience in central Pennsylvania.  Thanks for coming and letting us see ourselves through your eyes. I learned a lot from the visit!”

GDS teachers strive to create the circumstances through which students can develop the ability to listen with open minds, think critically, and engage in dialogue—that is both civil and rigorous—with those whose life stories are different from their own. Whether in a Lower School classroom, on Capitol Hill with 8th graders, or at Messiah College with a High School Minimester, students learn to change the world first by understanding the people in it.