Civil Discourse: A Socratic Seminar on the Impact of Civility in Public Life

How does civility/incivility impact public life?

This is the driving question for a Socratic Seminar I hosted for teachers through the ESC of Central Ohio and PBL Ohio this Wednesday, October 26.  Here is a link to this and other upcoming events I will host in collaboration with them.

To begin conversation, here are two short news clips and a link to a letter.  After viewing/reading each one, write down initial impressions based upon the question: What is the impact of civility/incivility in modern, public life?  Also record other questions these news items evoke for you around the topic of civil discourse.

  1. Watch this two-minute summary of the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump which CNN named the “Scorched Earth Presidential Debate in Two Minutes.”  Also included on this same link is a montage video of Trump interrupting Hillary in another debate and a video titled “60 Seconds of Pure Vitrol” where Clinton and Trump insult one another.
  2. Also check out this three-minute video called “Going Beyond a Civil Discourse” from Fox News which describes violence and threats made to both parties during the 2011 healthcare debates.
  3. Lastly, here is the recently released letter that George Bush left in the Oval Office for Bill Clinton after he had lost the election.

At the workshop, we used this entry event to generate a list of questions together.  They are as follows:

  • What is civil discourse?
  • What is the current level of interest in civil discourse in our society?
  • What is the impact of social media on our civility?  
  • What is the impact of our modern lifestyle on civility?  (The immediate gratification culture)
  • When is civility more difficult and why?  
  • What is the future of civil discourse?  
  • Have we become less civil?  
  • Where is the line between public and private life?  Does this line impact our civility? Explain.
  • How can we stay engaged in the discourse when we have been disenchanted and do not want to do so?  
  • Why do I want to engage in this modern discourse?
  • Where is the line between civility and incivility?
  • Is incivility necessary and when?  
  • Why does there appear to be greater public response when the discourse is not civil?  
  • Which is worse, secret judgement that is civil or uncivil, outward judgement?
  • How does public discourse influence private behavior?
  • Should we, as educators, model and expect civil and/or uncivil discourse from ourselves and students?  
  • How do we model civil discourse as teachers and role models?   
  • How does civility, or a lack of, influence production?  

After we generated a list of questions, and introduced the method of Socratic Seminar we would be using through this Power Point and this video, teachers were given an hour to prepare for this Socratic Discussion using this graphic organizer and the resources below.  They were told to begin with these resources, but also seek out others that pertained to the questions.  After we prepared, every teacher had the opportunity to play the role of student in both the inner and the outer circle.


A Plea for Civil Discourse: Needed, the Academy’s Leadership” by Andrea Leskes in Liberal Education.  Defines and explores civil discourse in (higher) education and provides examples of good practice.  Many additional resources linked to the article.

Obama on Political Correctness: ‘A Recipe for Dogmatism’” by Jonathan Chalt in New York Magazine.  Provides direct quotes from President Obama where he expresses concern over the effects of political correctness.

Disrespect in Politics: Is Civility Possible?” by Kathleen Maclay in Berkley News. An interview with Henry Brady, dean of UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, on the changing role of civil discourse in modern politics.

Recent Poll Confirms: Civility Matters” by Adam Zolkover in The Institute for Civility in Government. Gauges the importance of civility to “politically engaged Americans” and examines perspectives across party lines.

How to Talk About Sensitive Topics so that People Will Listen” by Dr. Carrie Wilkens and Dr. Nicole Kosake in LifeHacker. Tips for engaging people in difficult interpersonal topics.

Difficult Dialogues” by Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University. Includes, “The Basics,” “Specific Tools and Stratgies” and “Additional Resources.”

OSU Difficult Dialogue Program Power Point. Summarizes specific goals, topics, fears, ground rules and strategies for the implementation of difficult dialogue in the classroom.

Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom” by Derek Bok in Teaching and Learning at Harvard.  Gives specific strategies and examples for making “hot moments” teaching moments.

Civil Discourse in the Classroom” by Teaching Tolerance.  A curriculum for building civil discourse into the classroom.

In Today’s Viral World, Who Keeps a Civil Tongue” by Ann Gerhart in the Washington Post. Discusses the role of the internet and online media in discouraging civility.

What is Empathy” by The UC Berkeley’s Greater Good.  Includes definition and the importance of empathy plus practices that cultivate it and videos with additional information.

I Don’t Feel Your Pain: A Failure of Empathy Perpetuates Race Disparities” by Jason Silverstone in Slate. Reviews research and the effects of differences in empathy level for those of other races.

Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom from the Boston Review. A discussion of the downside of empathy.

Checklist of Cognitive Distortions” by Austin Peay State University.  List and definition of cognitive distortions and ways to combat them.

Tuning In: Improving Your Listening Skills” by Sue Shellenbarger in The Washington Post. Importance of listening and what to do before and during a conversation.

Civil Dialogue” from OneIowa.  An example of civil dialogue surrounding LGBT rights.

The Other Side is Not Dumb” by Sean Blanda on Medium. On the importance of understanding those with whom we disagree.


Civil Discourse 101” by MetroEast Community Media and Multnomah Bar Foundation on Youtube.  Overview of the elements needed for civil discourse with a specific example included.

The Lost Art of Democratic Debate” by Michael Sander from TED 2010.  About 20 minutes (transcript available).

A Framework for Civil Discourse About Race and Racism” by Wornie Reed from TEDx Virginia Tech.  About 10 minutes.

A Return to Civil Discourse” by Malcolm Glover from TEDx University of Central Arkansas. About 11 minutes.

How to Turn the Political Conversation Around” by TED.  A playlist of TEDTalks around the theme of “improving political debate so that we can build toward a better society.”

5 Ways to Listen Better” by Julian Treasure from TED Global 2011.  About 8 minutes

Brene Brown on Empathy” from RSA onYoutube.  Outlines the difference between empathy and sympathy in a three-minute animated short.



What lessons are you teaching on civil discourse?  How were these resources helpful?  Please share!

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