From the Penn National Commission
on Society, Culture and Community
Penn Public Talk Project
| PENNTALKS | THE WORK | KEY FINDINGS
The Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community, convened
and chaired by President Judith Rodin, is now moving to put into practice
the ideas generated during its three years of work.
Since its inception in December 1996, the Penn National Commission on
Society, Culture and Community has sought to understand the problems of
contemporary public discussion and behavior and to foster more engaged and
thoughtful conversations about contemporary social issues. During the Commission's
inaugural session, President Rodin challenged 48 scholars, political leaders
and shapers of public opinion "to address the polarization, oversimplification,
and isolation from important cultural and intellectual traditions that are
increasingly characteristic of contemporary social and political discourse."
Reflecting Penn's special heritage of uniting theory and practice, the
Commission has aimed not only to understand the dynamics of public discourse
and contemporary culture, but to put its understandings to work.
In this spirit, the Commission's recently launched Penn Public Talk Project
is undertaking a broadly conceived, nationwide effort to improve the
conduct of public discourse.
With the Commission's study phase completed, programs developed by the
Public Talk Project will reflect the central insights of the Commission:
Productive public discourse integrates rational deliberation with personal
narrative and relational features to strengthen communities. Such fully
realized, robust discourse enables citizens of diverse backgrounds and opinions
to do real work together on issues of perceived consequence and importance
in their own lives and communities. (For more information on the Commission's
key findings see below.)
The first local effort of the Public Talk Project will encourage and
develop student participation in robust discourse. Starting in March, a
new program called PennTalks will give Penn undergraduates an opportunity
to share with each other their hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the Penn
community of the 21st Century. The program will start with undergraduates
this spring, and if successful, be extended to faculty, staff and graduate
students in the future. (See box below.)
The Public Talk Project will also enlist other colleges and universities
into its national effort by co-sponsoring with Campus Compact a Presidents'
Leadership Colloquium on Higher Education for Democracy: Strategies for
Civic Engagement on the Penn campus next June.
Programmatic initiatives such as these are designed to achieve three
critical tasks that the Commission has identified:
- Creating a nationwide network of venues that are available and committed
to the conduct of productive public talk and the development of robust
communities of conversation;
- Developing a cadre of leaders who are committed and properly prepared
to lead these conversations; and
- Demonstrating exemplary discourse practices through a variety of public
programs that address societal issues on which there is substantial disagreement.
Through both its own public programs and partnerships with a wide variety
of other organizations and institutions-discourse programs, libraries, museums,
colleges and universities, community organizations, issue advocacy groups,
human relations organizations, and professional and affinity--based associations--the
Penn Public Talk Project is working to strengthen an emerging national movement
in support of good public discourse and strong, inclusive communities. Building
on the work of the Penn National Commission and the concrete experience
of many other organizations, we are moving quickly towards the creation
of a broadly-based national coalition for discourse and community.
-- Stephen P. Steinberg, Executive Director
| PENNTALKS | THE WORK | KEY FINDINGS
The Penn Public Talk Project has launched a new
program that gives faculty, staff and students the opportunity to articulate
and share with each other their hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the Penn
community of the 21st Century. Starting with undergraduates, PennTalks
will encourage students to share their thoughts with peers, senior administrators,
and the entire Penn community. Student volunteers will be trained to lead
a series of small group conversations in their college houses, fraternities,
sororities, interest organizations, and any other place that students get
Students may participate as either facilitators or members of a group.
The program starts with facilitator training on Friday, March 3, followed
by small group discussions during March and early April. Each conversation
will feature a small group of individuals learning from one another in an
interactive, collaborative manner. Volunteer student facilitators will lead
the conversations. Though discussion guides will be distributed in advance
to all participants and will feature a variety of questions and alternate
viewpoints designed to stimulate discussion, PennTalks conversations have
no pre-determined agenda--or outcomes--and are intended to foster energetic,
honest discussion about the issues and concerns that matter most to the
Enthusiastic support has been received from several student groups, including
the Undergraduate Assembly. The UA is co-sponsoring the project and working
to secure both facilitators and the broadest possible student participation
in the discussion sessions. Civic House is also serving as a co-sponsor
and providing facilities for training and additional discussion sessions.
In addition to the community-building effects of the program, the findings
should present a vision of the Penn community students want to build and
could inform future strategic planning and campus initiatives. If successful,
PennTalks will be expanded to include staff, graduate students, and faculty.
As a program of the Penn Public Talk Project, organizers are hopeful that
PennTalks will serve as a model for robust, productive community discourse
at other colleges and universities.
For more information visit the website, www.upenn.edu/pnc/penntalks/.
| PENNTALKS | THE WORK | KEY FINDINGS
The Work of the Penn National Commission
Early in its deliberations, the Penn National Commission identified three
deficiencies that have strongly influenced the character of public discourse
and public behavior: a Failure of Leadership, in the continuing dialogue
between and among leaders and constituencies; the Fragmentation of Communities,
in which race, class, ideology, ethnicity and special interests divide and
sub-divide rather than unify civic life; and a Culture of Intolerance, expressed
in the incivility, intolerance and ideological polarization that dominate
our public discourse.
Through its plenary discussions, papers, commissioned research, and other
activities (for more information, see the PNC website at www.upenn.edu/pnc),
the Penn National Commission has crafted an ambitious agenda to improve
the conduct of public discourse and create stronger and more inclusive communities
across America. These efforts reflect a central insight of the Commission:
Robust, engaged public discourse on issues of perceived consequence creates
and strengthens diverse, inclusive communities. By giving citizens real
"work to do together," such conversations can help individuals
of diverse backgrounds and opinions deepen their understanding and recognition
of mutual differences while strengthening their sense of shared community.
Commission members met in six thematically-linked, semi-annual meetings
across the country:
- Following the Commission's first meeting at Penn in December 1996,
members reconvened in Philadelphia in June 1997 for a discussion of the
influence of mass markets and government policies on the dynamics of public
- Washington was the venue in December 1997 when Commission members shared
their thoughts on Public Behavior and the Responsibilities of Institutions,
an examination of the leadership roles of government, universities, professional
sports, and the military in shaping public discussion and setting-or failing
to set-behavioral norms.
- Moving to Chicago in June 1998 for sessions on Leading The Conversation:
Leadership in a Democratic Society, members examined the difficult
dynamics of "national conversations" on race and affirmative
- Members convened in Los Angeles in December 1998 to deliberate Enriching
the Conversation: Community in the 21st Century. This meeting explored
the critical role of institutions and leaders in creating strong "communities
of conversation" both at home and abroad.
- The sixth and concluding session took place at Penn on November 8-9,
1999, when Commission members discussed Celebrating the Conversation:
Public Discourse in Action. This meeting reviewed the effectiveness
of contemporary discourse programs and considered ways to improve the conduct
of public talk in the United States.
In addition to the plenary meetings, a body of commissioned research,
presentations and essays added to the Commission's effort to understand
the problems of contemporary public discussion and behavior, and to foster
more engaged and thoughtful conversations about contemporary social issues.
For more information on the Penn National Commission or the Penn Public
Talk Project visit www.upenn.edu/pnc,
phone (215) 573-6666 or e-mail email@example.com.
| PENNTALKS | THE WORK | KEY FINDINGS
Key Findings of the Penn National Commission
The pervasiveness of uncivilized behavior that so many of us complain
about is not really a new phenomenon, according to the Penn National Commission
on Society, Culture and Community. While the advent of mass media and instant
global communications may amplify uncivil language and behaviors that have
always been part of human societies, the Commission believes that promoting
opportunities for more engaged and productive deliberation--even when unpleasant--is
the best way to create a more inclusive and civil society.
The Commission's findings are drawn from the proceedings of six, thematically-linked,
plenary sessions held in Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles;
from commissioned research; and from three working groups that were formed
to examine issues of public culture and behavior, leadership, and community.
Among the research studies were those that identified the characteristics
of good public discourse, good discourse practices, the dynamics of political
apology, forgiveness and reconciliation, the characteristics of effective
discourse leadership, and the role of institutions in providing opportunities
for productive public discourse.
Among the key findings are:
- Incivility Is Not New: Rather, incivility and coarseness are
a continuation of behaviors that have always been with us. It is a behavior
greatly amplified by changes in the social context in which it occurs,
by the economic dynamics of mass markets, by the new technologies of mass
communication, and by laissez-faire governmental policies.
- The Centrality of Public Discourse: Public discourse, or "public
talk," plays a central role in the functioning of a well-ordered democratic
society, facilitating productive dialogue on such "hot-button"
issues as immigration, race, abortion, and affirmative action. The processes
of engaged, productive public discourse de-sensitizes such issues and facilitates
co-existence, even in the face of frank opinions, uncivil behaviors, and
- The Thinning of Public Discourse: Population growth, technological
change, mass migrations, economic development, widespread literacy and
education, and other historical changes have all worked to spread-out public
discourse, "thinning" it, to use historian and Commission member
Tom Bender's phrase. Add to these changes a cacophony of new voices in
the cultural mix, and good discourse becomes harder to see, hear, or participate
in. Conversely, "bad" discourse seems louder and more dominant.
The Commission's approach is to "thicken" public discourse by
submerging uncivil behaviors in a wealth of constructive and energetic
- Good Public Discourse Has Changed: A useful formulation of what
constitutes good public discourse emerged from a review of the scholarly
literature on this subject prepared for the Commission by Dr. David M.
Ryfe of the University of California at San Diego. Ryfe says that, traditionally,
good discourse has been interpreted solely as rational argument. Today,
good deliberative discourse integrates rational arguments with narratives,
personal experiences, the expression of emotion, and empathetic listening.
Discourse fashioned along these lines will be argumentative--but argumentative
in a way that seeks to achieve greater inclusion and stronger communal
- Institutions Playing a More Important Role: The Commission has
concluded that a variety of social and cultural institutions (private foundations,
museums, historical societies, libraries, universities, corporations, sports,
and the military) have assumed important, new roles in creating "communities
of conversation" among increasingly isolated individuals and groups.
Historically, these organizations have been rarely thought of as central
to the creation of a sense of community or to the provision of forums where
citizens can engage in frank, sometimes upsetting, public interaction.
In many instances, these organizations have filled the gaps left by political
parties, churches, and labor unions, which have historically provided such
forums, created and engaged diverse communities, and used their professional
resources to foster productive public discussion.
- The Importance of Effective Discourse Leadership: The Commission's
analyses of the public discussions surrounding major public policy issues
such as affirmative action, campaign finance reform, immigration, health
care, tobacco, civic journalism, and arts funding have highlighted the
crucial role that leaders in all walks of life play in shaping and setting
the tone for public talk. Preliminary research sponsored by the Commission
suggests that even small interventions by leaders can reduce conflict and
- Creating Communities of Conversation: Public culture is the
place where we constantly negotiate the boundaries of privacy and public
interest and the tensions created by different visions of the public good.
The Commission has concluded that there is a need for a more active and
self-conscious effort-a national movement-to create a public culture that
supports the building of strong discourse communities and engages in substantive,
honest, and productive public dialogues.
An extensive archive of the Commission's findings, implications, papers,
plenary presentations and discussions, videos, commissioned research, and
working group papers is available in transcript, video and audio formats
on the Commission's website at www.upenn.edu/pnc/
or in its electronic journal, Public Talk: The Online Journal of
Discourse Leadership, at www.upenn.edu/pnc/publictalk.
| PENNTALKS | THE WORK | KEY FINDINGS
Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 23, February 29, 2000
PAGE | CONTENTS
| PENN NATIONAL
COMMISSION | TALK
ABOUT TEACHING ARCHIVE | BETWEEN
ISSUES | MARCH at PENN |