In September, the University of Pennsylvania Press published Public Discourse in America: Conversation and Community in the Twenty-First Century, coedited by Penn President Judith Rodin and Stephen Steinberg, executive director of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture, and Community.

The volume collects essays written for six meetings of the Commission that was convened by Rodin in 1996 to create “a robust and diverse public culture in which reasoned and reasonable discourse can flourish.” At the time, “few issues loomed larger than the apparently rapid deterioration of public discourse and public behavior in the United States,” Rodin writes in a prologue.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have rendered that era far more distant in mind that it is in years. But the problems addressed by the essays, say the coeditors, are in some ways perennial and more specifically go back to the early 20th century, as “‘thick’ interdependencies between social life and politics have given way to a ‘thinning’ of public discourse, in which politics is estranged from people’s lives, values, and social experiences.”

Those problems also seem likely to outlast the mood of national unity that immediately followed the terrorist attacks, as arguments over foreign wars and their aftermaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, and over alleged challenges to civil liberties at home—not to mention the looming presidential elections of 2004—have dissipated some of that common sense of purpose. “While seemingly more ‘civil’ and unified, America’s current domestic and international situation makes the three-year study undertaken by the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community in the late 1990s far more relevant than one might first have thought,” they contend.

Nearly 50 “academic and professional leaders” participated in the meetings, held in Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles between 1996 and 1999. The essays are organized around six major areas, moving from an examination of public discourse and democracy, to the challenge of talking about race—a tragic and recurrent failure in American public life—to studies in contemporary discourse leadership, to discourses of reconciliation, to principles and practices for “thickening” public discourse, and finally to ways to create community through public discourse.

Contributors include the essayist Richard Rodriguez on the increasingly convoluted question of racial identity in America; Harvard University president emeritus Derek Bok on political leadership in the healthcare debate of 1993-94; movie and cultural critic Neal Gabler on public discourse in popular culture; Jay Rosen, a leader in the “public journalism” movement, on journalism as civic leadership; and University of Chicago president Don Randel on the “myth” of academic community. Besides the prologue, Rodin contributes an essay on “the university as discourse community” (excerpted here), and co-editor Steinberg writes on creating communities in cyberspace and an epilogue on the “centrality” of public discourse.

Throughout the course of its work, the Commission struggled against a shorthand view of its mission as one of merely getting people—politicians and the rest of us—to be more civil, nicer to each other. Rodin uses an anecdote about (who else?) Benjamin Franklin to clarify the Commission’s true goal—and, historically, the United States’ salvation in times of crisis.

In 1787, Franklin admonished the Continental Congress that they had come together “to consult, not to contend, with each other,” Rodin writes. “But we know that they did contend with each other, sometimes strongly and uncivilly, about the most fundamental conceptions of human liberty, community, and
government,” she continues. “Yet the founding fathers also recognized their common situation and shared task, the pressing necessity of designing a workable government. Despite their profound and sometimes painful differences,
they made their contentious discourse productive by remaining engaged, whether they won or lost the day’s argument, and by staying committed to their common endeavor.”

2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/03

The University as Discourse Community
By Judith Rodin
Illustration by David Hollenbach

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