A Failure of Civil Leadership at America’s School for Civil Dialogue

A Failure of Civil Leadership at America’s School for Civil Dialogue
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

America’s institutions of higher education are beacons of intellectual liberty, attracting students and scholars from around the world. Yet they stand on the brink of sacrificing fundamental principles of free inquiry in their rush to address present grievances and redress past wrongs. At a time when our nation’s universities should be reminding the country of the value of democratic deliberation, many are succumbing to partisan pressures from both the right and the left to declare that the time for civil dialogue has passed. 

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It is a sign of the times that even a bastion of the Socratic method like St. John’s College – an institution shaped by a generation of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution – is wavering in its commitment to civil dialogue. According to the St. John’s Mission Statement, the “ultimate aim” of a liberal arts education is that “the habits of thought and discussion begun by the students should continue with them throughout their lives.” Students acquire such habits by submitting “their opinions to one another's questions;” for it is only through cross-examination that students “acquire a new perspective.”

Given St. John’s commitment to the principles of civil dialogue, it is troubling that the school’s president, Mark Roosevelt, recently discouraged open debate in an otherwise laudable effort to engage with the concerns of his fellow citizens. In a heartfelt statement recorded for CBS News, Mr. Roosevelt argued for the removal of his great-grandfather’s statue from outside the Natural History Museum in New York on grounds that it is “paternalistic,” and depicts “Native Americans and African Americans in subordinate roles.” While some question the paternalism of the monument, I concur with Mr. Roosevelt’s broader point that we should “not maintain monuments that memorialize individuals who fought to keep in slavery the same people with whom we now say we wish to live in harmony and equality.” This is especially true for monuments erected during the Jim Crow era that sought to entrench racial hierarchy.   

Despite Mr. Roosevelt’s good intentions, his statements about the role of civil dialogue in addressing controversial questions undermines his express purpose of fostering “harmony and equality.” His remarks contradict the civic ideals of the college he leads and are counter-purposive to the end he seeks.

In making his case, Mr. Roosevelt twice calls those who disagree with his position “disingenuous.” It is “disingenuous,” Mr. Roosevelt writes, “to say that the protesters demanding removal of these statues should now step back and allow for civil dialogue about these issues.” In Mr. Roosevelt’s judgment, civil dialogue has no meaningful role to play in America’s monumental crisis. “When some argue that we should not ‘erase our past’ and that such statues can be invitations to examine and civilly discuss complex issues,” he says, “that is disingenuous.” By questioning the motives of his interlocutors, Mr. Roosevelt stifles the open and frank conversation we urgently need. 

I am confident that Mr. Roosevelt speaks in good faith, but he seems unwilling to grant his interlocutors the same benefit of the doubt. Absent such mutual generosity, conversation is impossible. And absent mutual respect, we will fail to achieve the noble goal of racial “harmony and equality” to which both Mr. Roosevelt and I are committed.

Civil dialogue helps us revise our opinions and overcome our prejudices by listening to others who have thoughts and experiences different from our own. It requires that all of us – no matter our skin color, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or occupation – admit that we are morally and intellectually fallible. Respect for our neighbor enjoins us to treat one another as sincere interlocutors who have the best interests of the whole community in mind. This humble and cooperative approach to learning and self-governance is an ideal that is not always realized in practice. As Oxford University professor Teresa Bejan has argued, in our hyper-partisan political climate we must recommit ourselves to the quintessential democratic virtue of toleration. 

Discouraging civil dialogue about any social issue, not to mention demonizing one’s neighbors by suggesting that their motives are “disingenuous,” makes mutual understanding, the pursuit of truth, and the attainment of justice impossible. It is never too late, never futile, and never offensive to foster civil dialogue. I fear that Mr. Roosevelt’s intervention in the current national discussion about public monuments inadvertently signals to those who look to St. John’s as a bastion of intellectual probity that the college doesn’t mean what it says about the liberating power of education. 

When Mr. Roosevelt asserts that “books and classrooms, not monuments” furnish the proper occasions on which to “civilly discuss complex issues,” he draws too sharp a distinction between the dialogue appropriate at the seminar tables of elite colleges, and the often-raucous forum of public debate. Our country's greatest political debates, like those between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas or Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, have always been acts of democratic education.

Mr. Roosevelt chastises leaders with “power and influence who say we wish to do better,” calling them “an embarrassment to the nation” for refusing to confess their complicity in “sin” as he has done. Disparaging people as embarrassments to their country for failing to act in accord with your moral prescriptions, however legitimate they may be, ill-suits the leader of a college that stakes its reputation on the practice of civil discussion between people of good will. 

Like too many of today’s elites, Mr. Roosevelt presumes to think for his fellow citizens instead of urging them to think for themselves. His statement on monuments shackles the American mind instead of living up to the liberating motto of the college of which he is president: Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque, “I make free people out of children by means of books and balance.”

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