"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
– Margaret Mead
What does civic engagement have to do with public discussion?
The quality of public life in a democracy varies directly with the quality of public discourse. High-quality discourse, in turn, is a function of the degree to which people seek to resolve disagreement through the exchange of reasons for selecting one course of action rather than another. Lamentably, however, everyone—and scholars no less than the rest of us—who makes a good-faith effort to rely on exchanging reasons as a way to resolve value-based ethical and political disagreements soon discovers that, when reasoning about such matters—if it ever gets started at all—quickly arrives at the point where argument ceases and the choice of one conclusion rather than another seems to come down to a matter of personal, non-rational preference. The sense of futility and frustration that follow in the wake of failure to reach reasoned conclusions leads to the recrimination, name-calling, caricaturing, impugning of motives, distortion, and flat-out dishonesty that characterizes contemporary public discourse.
A more fruitful way of looking at the tendency of evaluative disagreements to reach an impasse is to see them, not as proof that all values and principles are a “matter of opinion,” but as occasions upon which judgment is called for. Philosophers as different as Kant, Dewey, Arendt, and Habermas have argued that judgment is a genuine form of knowledge. The process of forming a judgment is the art of drawing on a combination of factual knowledge, experience, and intuition to “fill in the gap” that remains after all reasons have been exhausted and further rational deliberation is not feasible. A person’s or community’s judgment—the conclusion they reach—is the practical knowledge created by the skillful practice of this art.
The public can’t identify and respond to a community’s needs unless members of the public are able and willing to work together. What does it take for members of the public to work together? People require civic skills such as speaking in public, listening, analyzing information, deliberating, negotiating, looking for or creating common ground, setting priorities, reaching a shared judgment, working out compromises, and so on. They also require civic attitudes such as the acceptance of shared responsibility, a desire for inclusion, the readiness to cooperate, and a willingness to place their individual goods in the context of the good of the community as a whole. In short, members of the public have to be able and willing to participate constructively and productively in collective problem-solving and decision making.
Constructive, productive collective problem-solving and decision making depend on moving from a public discourse marked by recrimination to one characterized by dialogue and deliberation. Competitive browbeating must be replaced with collaborative problem-solving. People need to learn to inquire together, to judge together. That entails understanding and appreciating each other’s perspectives and the roots in experience, personality, etc. of different needs, sensitivities, aspirations, hopes, etc.
The university, too, needs a more constructive, more productive practice of cross-disciplinary talk. As Edna St. Vincent Millay observed in her poem, Huntsman, What Quarry?:
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
falls from the sky a meteoric shower
of facts . . . they lie unquestioned,
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
is daily spun;
But there exists no loom to weave it
into fabric . . . .
“There exists no loom.” That is precisely the problem. The university—indeed, the entire intellectual enterprise in which scholars are engaged—breaks knowledge and inquiry into ever smaller and smaller realms having little connection to each other or to the whole. The university owes it to society to help construct a “loom”—a discourse of dialogue and deliberation—on which to weave our fragmented knowledge, through the formation of coherent judgments, into the fabric of wise and effective public policies.
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