Civil disagreement

In a recent Time editorial, Yale Law Dean Heather Gerken lionized the law school as a bastion of civil disagreement. She cited the uninterrupted speech of Charles Murray at Yale as an example of civility:

Law school conditions you to know the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. That’s why lawyers know how to go to war without turning the other side into an enemy.

A student group collectively responded, arguing that Gerken mischaracterized their protest during Murray’s visit to Yale and suggesting limits on law’s social and political influence:

If anything, our legal training has taught us that civility has its limits, and that disruption, creative protest, and rule-breaking are valid and often necessary tactics to effect change.

Amidst this debate and much, much more, a new class of law students is arriving at law schools across the country right now. Thus I was grateful to hear some excellent advice on promoting discussion and civility in legal education, shared at the recent Southeastern Association of Law Schools’ Conference.

Professor Suzanne Rowe of Oregon Law spoke on a panel about building character in the classroom. She briefly stated the character values law school seeks to instill—integrity, trust, respect. And then she focused on specific tools and methods for discourse within the classroom. That may not be all we need right now, but it definitely can help.

What do students need? They need to hear other views, respect other viewpoints, share their convictions with other classmates, and engage across the spectrum of ideas.

But what happens when this “spectrum of ideas” leads to a truly difficult conversation—where someone offers an opinion that fundamentally attacks the integrity, worth, and humanity of another person? Professor Rowe offered a roadmap for responding in these moments:

1.  Recognize what happened.

For example, the professor might describe reactions: “I’m seeing eyebrows raised and people seeming very uncomfortable.”

2.  Share what you feel and believe.

After an objective assessment of what has happened, the professor can share her reaction. For example, “I believe you can say that in a more professional way” or “I feel that the words you’ve used are harmful to members of our community.”

3.  Act

If the professor has prepared for this type of disruption, she might immediately lead students in a discussion of the unprofessional or harmful comment. If not, she might ask the class to take a break and regroup in a few minutes or the next day to engage in that discussion.

Professor Rowe also talked about teaching the value of disengaging. Students can engage more fully when they know they do not have to continue engaging no matter what they may hear. Some students might chose to step out of the classroom during a discussion.

There are no easy answers, but the framework for recognizing, sharing, and acting—plus disengaging at times—may help.

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