Over the course of my adult life, and most poignantly within the past several years, I have witnessed a significant increase in the apparent inability of people to comport themselves with civility and to frankly “get along” with one another or to disagree in an agreeable manner. Our society today is replete with examples of this behavior – at sporting events, political events, and even social events.

Perhaps, as some would argue, this climate of vitriolic discord has been exacerbated by the emergence of social media and the COVID-19 pandemic, both of which have forced us individually and collectively into a rather insular and isolated environment. Other scholars have suggested, this cultural phenomenon may be the result of a reversion to tribalism – i.e. my tribe is right, and I don’t like your tribe! 

Arthur Brooks characterizes it as a “culture of contempt,” which he argues is a key contributor to the growing prevalence of incivility and intolerance. One of the manifestations of this incivility is reflected in the lack of trust that is ubiquitous today. A recent Gallup poll survey found that “one immediate consequence is an eroding trust in government and government institutions.” Gallup’s measure of trust in American institutions reached a forty-year low in 2022 and, by mid-2022, confidence in the Presidency and the Supreme Court had fallen to 27% and 25% respectively, and even more significantly, only 7% reported they had confidence in Congress. Gallup additionally noted that this declining trust had spilled over into feelings regarding banks, corporations, labor unions, and other key segments of American society.  Popular modern author Ann Lamott offers her sage advice as she warns “You may have created God in your own image, when He hates all the same people that you do.” 

While I have been accused of being an eternal optimist, I really do believe that hope still abounds. Moreover, I believe that it is incumbent upon us as educators, to serve as an important part of the solution and help reverse this cultural shift. 

The now infamous words of former US Senate Majority Leader, White House Chief of Staff, Ambassador, and Statesman Howard Baker, who said “the other fella just might be right” are perhaps more apropos today than ever or at least in recent history. In Baker’s honor, the University of Tennessee has established the UT Baker Center, which is focused on (among other similar priorities) promoting civil discourse. 

Dr. Marianne Wanamaker, Director of the Baker Center, said “Our national discourse lacks thoughtfulness, respect for opposing viewpoints, and civility. As a result, contemporary college students do not have a model for participating in and consuming healthy public discourse.” She goes on to state: “As they prepare to inherit our American democracy, today’s college students are at a severe disadvantage. Many have grown up in an era of declining civic virtues in the society around them.”

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that “the current generation of college students has been taught that they are engaged in a battle of good versus evil, and that those who do not share their political values are to be shunned, not engaged or listened to.” Haidt goes on to note that “People are quite good at challenging statements made by other people, but people are not inclined to challenge their own beliefs.” With this in mind, it is precisely the role of higher education to compel students to examine their own beliefs – which is made possible by encountering contrasting viewpoints and ideas. 

Perhaps John Stuart Mill says it best as he states: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” 

In his book What Universities Owe Democracy, author David Daniels suggests, “If this generation of students does not learn the practice of listening and considering alternative ways of viewing important social issues, then our collective problem-solving skills will not improve. Perhaps it is for this reason that many Americans place political polarization at the top of their list of social ills. Without resolving polarization, the remainder of our concerns (the environment, gun violence, inequality, etc.) are not likely to be successfully addressed.”

This issue has manifest itself in many ways on college campuses – including but not limited to the banning or worse uninviting of certain speakers. According to data collected by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (F.I.R.E), efforts by some college students and faculty to “disinvite” speakers with whom they disagree with have steadily increased over the past 15 years. From 2000 to 2020, F.I.R.E documented 472 attempts to disinvite speakers at public and private American institutions. 

To combat this, the faculty at the University of Chicago drafted and subsequently adopted a now famous set of guidelines known as “The Chicago Principles.” In a few short pages, these principles outline a commitment not necessarily to agree with – but to hear and consider the views of others. The former president of the University of Chicago, Hanna Holborn Gray, summarized this principle well, when she wrote “education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.” 

As both a former Dean of Business and now as President at Cumberland University, I have had the opportunity to visit with many corporate CEO’s, and when I ask them what skills they find most important in those whom they want to hire for their company, they rarely ever mention any of the traditional skills on which we are so often focused – i.e. the CPC’s that we measure within our business curricula. Instead, almost to a person, but most especially from those who have enjoyed the greatest success, these CEO’s describe three sought after skills as most important – and these are (in ascending order of importance):

  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Critical Thinking

Finally, and in conclusion, I believe that we as educators have both an ability and the responsibility to imbue our students with critical thinking skills – so that they might be able to discern not just what makes sense on a balance sheet, but also what is truly right and just. We must teach our students how to listen and really hear the perspective of others, including especially those who might have a dissenting opinion. We must challenge our students to embrace the mantra of Senator Baker and remember that “the other fella just might be right.”