Shannon Watkins of the Martin Center writes about teaching students to engage in civil dialogue.

An encouraging sign … is that there is a renewed effort among some higher education leaders to teach students about the importance of free speech and how to participate in respectful dialogue.

One of those efforts is UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program for Public Discourse. The program is housed in the College of Arts and Sciences and includes faculty from across the university. Its mission is to support a strong culture of debate and deliberation at UNC through curricular and extracurricular programs.

Among other core beliefs, the program is committed to the idea that “the proper functioning of the university requires a commitment to open, frank, respectful, and productive debate.”

The Martin Center spoke with the program’s faculty director, professor Sarah Treul, to learn more about the program and how it contributes to students’ education. …

To get started, could you provide a brief history of the Program for Public Discourse? When was it established and what was the rationale for founding the program? How does it contribute to the mission of higher education, particularly a liberal arts education?

The program started in 2019, so just last year, and came about as the result of the College of Arts and Sciences’ new Ideas in Action general education curriculum, slated to begin next fall. One ambition of this new curriculum is to re-center the liberal arts education on objectives that extend beyond a focus on just careers and jobs. The pedagogical approach of the new curriculum is to prepare students to be effective, successful thinkers—and also citizens—by developing flexible “capacities” that cross disciplines and domains of knowledge.

The combination of this curriculum and a broader recognition by faculty on campus that our students desire a framework for conversation and deliberation led to the development of the program.