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A Reasoned and Reasonable Discourse
Penn National Commission studies how to "re-civilize" society.
By Judith Rodin, CW'66
Across America -- and increasingly around the world -- social and political life seems dominated today by incivility and intolerance.
Public discourse on a wide range of issues -- affirmative action, abortion, nationalism, race relations, immigration, and many others -- is characterized by polarization, a winner-takes-all mentality, and "in-your-face" rhetoric. Asked U.S. News & World Report: "Whatever happened to good manners?" But the malady is more serious than bad manners, and its symptoms are widespread. It's an all-star baseball player spitting in the face of an umpire. It's a radio talk-show host mocking the President of the United States and the First Lady in their presence. And, at the extreme, it's highway shootings and terrorist bombings.
According to a recent poll, 89 percent of Americans think incivility is a serious problem. And 78 percent think the problem has gotten worse over the past decade. I believe this incivility is an expression of deeper troubles: diminishing compassion, generosity, trust, and sense of community. Not only are we losing faith and confidence in our government and our institutions, but more and more, we seem to mistrust each other. In every decade since the 1950s this mistrust has grown, according to a recent series in The Washington Post. Today, nearly two out of three Americans believe that most people cannot be trusted. Thirty years ago, a majority believed the opposite.
As we approach the new millennium, intolerance and incivility threaten to impede our ability to move forward as a society in a constructive and purposeful way. If we are to change this destructive dynamic, we need to mobilize our best intellectual resources from the worlds of politics, journalism, philanthropy, entertainment, business, the media, and, above all, higher education.
Those of us at universities today -- as teachers of future leaders -- must identify and try to understand the true origins of what many are calling a contemporary social crisis. Indeed, we have a profound obligation to generate new insights, interpretations, and ideas that will redefine and "re-civilize," if you will, our culture and our society.
Penn is doing just that. Through the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture, and Community, the University is taking the lead by addressing the incivility and intolerance that seem to pervade contemporary life and discourse. The first of its kind, the Commission is charged with generating a serious and sustained dialogue about the origins, nature, and dynamics of the issues that divide us.
I am privileged to chair the Commission. Its 48 members are among the greatest thinkers and opinion-shapers of our day, people such as Judge Leon Higginbotham, Penn's own Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and social commentator Calvin Trillin. The Commission is an exciting convergence of disciplines and its members are a fascinating amalgam of disparate, creative thinking and vision.
At the first meeting of the Commission in December, the members suggested that to change the dynamics of our polarized and virulent public discourse, we must create and inject into it something new: new ideas, new interpretations, and new alternatives. And there is no better setting to do that than here at Penn.
Universities have a unique role to play in promulgating reasonable and reasoned discourse, in providing leadership and expertise, and in building culture and community, both within academic institutions and beyond. Said one Commission member: "We are supposed to be a special kind of space."
And we are. Universities provide a singular setting for the promotion of constructive dialogue. In the time spent in a class or earning a degree, there is a precious opportunity to exchange ideas, to engage in debate, to think and speak freely as in no other place and at no other time.
As the Penn Commission proceeds with its work, enriching the life of this University and, we hope, the nature of our society, I look forward to sharing the fruits of its labors with you, our alumni. As another member said: "Because of alumni associations, because of the professional associations that all emanate from the university, there is a chance not just to change the nature of what the university does when people are there, but also to give them a sense of belonging for the rest of their lives to this sustainable and diverse community."
I could not agree more.
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette | Last modified 7/2/97