Reasoned discourse is dead where?

We hear a lot lately about the coarsening of American culture, the end of civility.  On this theory, reasoned discourse is pretty much dead, replaced by name calling and lacerating criticism of the sort that dominates online comments.  Like guests on Jerry Springer, we go straight for the screaming and swinging.

But, wait.  Turns out some of the worst offenders are not just nasty respondents to op-ed articles but—ouch!—college professors.  At least according to Robert Zemsky, professor of higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania, in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (October 4, 2013).

In “How to Build a Faculty Culture of Change,” Zemsky identifies four “traps” that keep universities from innovating: fierce competition for students, a “moribund accreditation” system that punishes change, faculty that aren’t convinced change is needed yet, and “a troublesome fractiousness [that] holds sway on many campuses, with a take-no-prisoners rhetoric.”

That is, according to Zemsky, one of the major hurdles to innovation in higher education is professors acting like jerks.

Among his five recommendations for building a faculty culture of change is putting an end to “rhetorical excess,” which too often is used “to diminish and embarrass perceived opponents.”

“In this environment,” Zemsky writes, “sustained and  idea-centered discussions become a rarity—we see too much shouting, too many arguments that become personal, and, as a consequence, too little listening as opposed to broadcasting.”

I can practically hear my colleagues nodding their heads in agreement.

And that’s a shame.  We can have strongly held opinions without insulting those who don’t share them.  That’s something we try to teach our kids.


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