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From the desk of COLS Dean Chris Cirmo

Challenging our students in a civil way

Civility ...

Civil Discourse ...

Respect ...

These words signal cooperation, speaking in turn, listening, and being mindful of opposing views in our conversations. In many public forums of late, it is the disrespectful and arrogant who seem to garner the most press or attention. As such displays occur, many are asking that we adjust our rhetoric and model the virtues of intellectual courage (knowing when to speak up) and, more importantly, intellectual humility (knowing when not to speak).

Often our students are not exposed to these ideas before they come to campus, and we often see examples of a lack of these virtues in public forums and, increasingly, in politically charged media coverage of events. Here at UW-Stevens Point, we take our role as modelers of respect seriously and consciously work to encourage respectful but honest discourse as ideas and case studies are presented in our classes, lectures and meetings.

Increasingly, there are moves to display “trigger warnings” and to establish “safe zones” to protect vulnerable groups of students, while we still seek to challenge them with new ideas and ways of thinking. Should professors include warning notes with each topic on their syllabus, anticipating what may make students uncomfortable or challenge their ability to listen to opposing views?

In certain situations, it is clear that this is appropriate, as some students may be victims of sexual assault, hate crimes or have post-traumatic stress syndromes. There is a national trend toward more sensitivity to those who do have backgrounds where fear and trauma may result from open discussion of specific topics.

But does that also mean that we should avoid inviting controversial speakers to campus, encourage safe zones for every student demographic, and avoid presenting a spectrum of truths or opinions on religion, tolerance, politics or gender preference?

As a university, we have a responsibility to challenge our students by exposing them to opinions and beliefs that are counter to those they may have experienced. We have a responsibility to encourage students to use civil discourse in all their interactions with uncomfortable challenges, and to engage openly with civil discourse and respectful discussion.

We model this through our Civil Discourse Initiative, where we bring together people with diverse opinions on topics of importance in our society. We see our role as mentors challenging our students to respectfully listen, learn the techniques of argumentation, and engage in a civil manner as graduates representing UW-Stevens Point. 

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