This I Believe
There are shrill voices in current political and cultural debates that I cannot reconcile with my belief that only by listening and attempting to understand each other will we secure our free and democratic society.
One of the individuals who most influenced my life was my grandfather, a small-town doctor in Western Pennsylvania. He possessed a great respect for other people and their opinions and the ability to listen. From him, I learned that if you really want to communicate, first you must listen and hear what other people are saying. It is not just the listening, but also the hearing – the understanding.
The ability, or desire, to listen and to hear is lacking in our public life, at least in so far as it is reflected in the media. For most people, the need to be heard is more important than to listen to what the other person is saying.
Over the 35 years of my career as an educator, I have believed that it is the responsibility of higher education to frame a process and to create a setting so that people can listen and hear and ask questions in such a way that dialogue is encouraged. This is part of what needs to be exercised, taught, and experienced in the classroom.
Everything should be on the table; everything should be discussed. There are ways of doing this that are more acceptable in an academic setting than they might be in any other, and we should use the academic setting to our advantage.
Faculty members who teach by questioning students and by taking a particular perspective and challenging students to think about that perspective and to argue against it or for it are wonderful, but I would hope they do so in such a way that they do not discourage dialogue but rather encourage it between themselves and their students and among their students. It is the role of faculty to encourage students to listen to all points of view, to understand speakers’ backgrounds and why they are saying what they do so that dialogue can be informed and meaningful.
Young people come to higher education today to obtain a degree. They focus on how to obtain that goal and are less concerned about learning, especially the kind of learning that requires listening, hearing, and informed dialogue. This constitutes one of higher education’s greatest challenges and a great danger to our democracy.
The role of higher education is not to join public debates, and certainly not to contribute to the shrillness that is obviously interfering with our ability to communicate. The role of higher education is to teach students to listen and to hear so that they can engage in the meaningful and productive dialogues – on and off campus – that advance public debate and inform a free citizenry.
It may take a great deal of faith on the part of the public to believe that higher education can advance meaningful national dialogue one student – one citizen – at a time. However, I believe such open exchange is some of the greatest contributions of our colleges and universities and a requisite foundation for the survival of our democratic institutions.
Walter M. Bortz III is the 23rd President of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. He has held administrative positions at Bethany College, Texas Christian University, East Carolina University, the University of Hartford, and The George Washington University. He has been the President of Hampden-Sydney College, a selective small liberal arts college for men, since 2000.
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