Understanding and Improving our Civic Discourse

In October, the 2023-24 school year’s second MRC Day connected with work undertaken in Episcopal’s Civil Dialogue Series program, which seeks to help students develop and hone the skills necessary to engage in productive and meaningful discussion as part of their educational journey and growth into effective and ethical leaders. The School’s first Civil Dialogue Series speaker of the year was author and founding director of the American University Project on Civic Dialogue Lara Schwartz, who met with students on the Sunday evening preceding the MRC Day. 

Schwartz challenged students to “flip the script by not searching for evidence to back up assertions but rather to make assertions backed up by evidence,” and to avoid “binary yes/no questions,” using instead “lovable questions” that seek to broaden the circle of those who can engage in the conversation and help us understand differing perspectives. Before having students break into advisory groups for collaborative problem-solving exercises, she reminded them that the best answer one can have is “I don’t know” because it allows them the opportunity to be curious and search for the best solution. Delving into their assigned case studies, students were asked to seek answers with integrity, listen with generosity and grace, communicate to be understood, and engage in self-reflection. While Sunday evening’s case study was focused on the development of fictional Lake Stillwell, Monday’s exercise was more personal as they discussed Episcopal’s dress code provision that “clothing should not contain offensive language or images.”

Monday’s keynote speaker was Amy Liu, interim president of the Brookings Institution. Liu furthered the conversation about the importance of civil dialogue as part of productive civic engagement. She emphasized that “we are not as polarized as we are led to believe on social media or cable TV,” and reminded students not to make assumptions about the politics, educational levels, or financial status of people in large metro or rural areas. She talked about the powerful impact people can make by focusing on civic issues at the local level, and explained how important it is to understand how our metro areas have a far reaching economic impacts on smaller regional cities and towns. Instead of just understanding differences and different perspectives, Liu emphasized the importance of working together: “Progress does not come from talk,” she said. “Progress comes from leaders who find ways to solve problems together despite coming from different cultural backgrounds, income levels, neighborhoods, and beliefs…we need to move from civic discourse to civic action, which is our civic duty.”

She encouraged students to make a difference from the bottom up and said she has great hope for our future. “All of you have the opportunity to be the generation that creates a society that is better than you found it. That takes leadership, community building, and courageous action.”

The afternoon was spent in a series of wellness and services activities, both on campus and off.

Reflecting on the goals of the MRC Days and Episcopal’s Civil Dialogue Series, Dr. Ryan Pemberton, the William Stamps Farish Fund Director of the McCain-Ravenel Center for Intellectual and Moral Courage, said, “Learning how to listen, produce insightful questions, and be accountable for our actions and words are hallmarks of ethical citizen leaders. The skills we are actively helping students learn and practice at Episcopal are designed to cultivate the ethical servant leaders our world so desperately needs.”