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These professors are asking students to consider divisive ideas — and learn

These professors are asking students to consider divisive ideas — and learn

The Washington Post

Susan Svrluga
May 4, 2023
Lara Schwartz faced a room full of American University students, making a case she was sure many would disagree with: The university, she said, shouldn’t ban controversial speakers.
By turns eloquent, blunt and funny, she said access to a broad exchange of ideas is important — and is the best thing about college. Then she urged the students to make their strongest counterarguments.
“Come at me,” she said.
Hands shot up. Someone said vulnerable students shouldn’t have to bear the burden of debating a white supremacist or a homophobe, or be fearful because people with those views are on campus. Another said the intent of the invitation matters: “If you just want to invite Ben Shapiro to piss off a lot of people, that’s wrong.
“I’m a freshman,” the student added, “so I could be wrong.”
Schwartz, the founding director of the Project on Civil Discourse at AU, shot back a reassuring response: “You could be wrong if you’re a 51-year-old lawyer!”
The discussion was part of “Disagree with a Professor,” a regular, voluntary series at AU that aims to help students practice speaking up, feel comfortable figuring out their own ideas and countering those they disagree with. It is part of a broader effort across higher education to teach civil discourse, a skill that proponents say is essential to democracy — and all too rare.
The efforts are intended as a counterweight to the divisiveness and hostility common on social media, in politics, and, at times, at colleges where students have shouted down speakers or tried to keep them off campus entirely. In some circles, college students are seen as too thin-skinned to listen to a wide range of views.
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