Civil Discourse in the U.S. (Part 1) | The Opportunities It Presents for Educators

by Dale Fleury, A+CR Social Studies Content Director

If you take a look at our nation’s history, examples abound where public civil and political discourse approaches, and sometimes crosses, the line of civility and decency. I’m not just referring to common, ordinary people, but individuals who have gone down in history as playing a significant role in our country’s development.


In his book, Anything for A Vote, A History of Mud-Slinging, Character Assassination, And Other Election Strategies, Joseph S. Cummins, documents that from the beginning of our great nation the civility and public discourse line has been breached frequently. Here are two examples that are edited and fit for print:


In the election of 1796, Thomas Jefferson’s opponents accused him of being an atheist and his supporters “walked in rags and slept with the filth and vermin.” Recall Hillary Clinton calling Trump supporters in our most recent presidential election race, “a basket of deplorables?”

During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in office, some Republicans spread the rumor that FDR was neither an Episcopalian nor a Roosevelt, but secretly a Jew whose real name was “Rosenfeld.” Remember Donald Trump claiming that a judge could not rule properly on one of Trump’s court cases because he was, “Mexican,” or his insistence that President Obama was not a natural-born U.S. citizen?


The examples are numerous and unfortunately much too frequent. A review of the public record shows that this type of discourse in our history is commonplace and tolerated. The First Amendment protects all citizens who wish to express an opinion. In fact, the United States Supreme Court has consistently upheld one’s opinion; so long as it does not create a “clear and present danger” that the government has an interest in protecting.


The challenge today of maintaining a higher level of civility and decency in our public discussions of controversial issues is much different and much more difficult, especially for educators, in this new age of “instant communication.” According to the organization, Teaching Tolerance;


“We live in a climate ripe for noise: Media outlets and 24-hour news cycles mean that everyone with access to a computer has access to a megaphone to broadcast their views. Never before in human history has an opinion had the opportunity to reach so many so quickly regardless of its accuracy or appropriateness. Compounding the situation, young people are learning in an era when athletes routinely hurl invective at umpires, referees and other athletes, when “entertainment” is laced with verbal and physical abuse; and when political protests too often lead to physical attacks.”


What does all of this mean for educators? When we tolerate and allow what students frequently see and hear on television and via social media, our classrooms become a microcosm of society; a place of fear, bullying, and intimidation.


It’s important to remember that our classrooms are an incubator for the next generation, influencing how they will conduct themselves as citizens of a beautifully diverse community. As educators, we are responsible for what happens in our classroom and have a duty to model and practice proper discourse and behavior. Our students come to us with opinions, misconceptions, and prejudices. We can use opportunities where the line of civility and public discourse is being crossed to engage in strategies where ideas and opinions can be exchanged in a safe environment, our classroom.


Social studies teachers across the state of Alabama are doing just that. In this companion post some outstanding teachers — who understand the opportunity they have to promote “civil” public discourse — share ways they are optimizing these opportunities to help students build strong diplomacy and communication skills.


We encourage you to share some of these best practices with your network of education leaders, as we work together to develop the minds of our future generation. We have a moral duty to leave this place better than the way we found it. These teachers are trying to do just that.

READ NEXT POST: Alabama’s Social Studies Teachers Share How They Are Creating Lessons in Civility from Today’s Uncivil Climate