The Penn National Commission seeks to foster the "reasoned and reasonable" discourse essential to the social, political, cultural, and community life of a democracy. An international group of forty-eight scholars, political leaders, and shapers of public opinion, convened by University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin, the Commission is meeting over a three-year period to understand the problems of contemporary public discussion and behavior and foster a more engaged and thoughtful public discourse in the 21st century.
The Problems of Public Discourse
Early in its deliberations, the Commission identified three deficiencies that influence 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.
Philadelphia 1996: "An Urgent Task"
Philadelphia 1997: "The Market, the State, and the Dynamics of Public Culture"
Washington 1997: "Public Behavior and the Responsibilities of Institutions"
Chicago 1998: "Leading the Conversation: Leadership in a Democratic Society"
Los Angeles 1998
Members of the Commission represent many different disciplines, professions, political perspectives, and opinions. The Commission is chaired by Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the University of Pennsylvania.
Six thematically linked, semi-annual plenary meetings, in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and and Los Angeles, are being held to advance the Commission's deliberations and outreach activities.
Three deliberative working groups are at the heart of the Commission's research and programming activities: Culture and Public Behavior, Leadership in a Democratic Society, and 21st Century Community. Each working group is investigating one of the three major problem areas identified by the Commission and is developing educational products for professional and public audiences.
In its research program, the Penn National Commission has undertaken these three essential tasks in understanding contemporary society and culture:
- To Document the Condition of Contemporary Public Discourse
- What is the present state of public discourse? In what specific respects does it fail to approach the standard of "reasoned and reasonable" discourse described by the Commission?
- To Define Exemplary Public Discourse
- What is "reasoned and reasonable" discourse? What are its component elements? How has it changed, if at all, over time? How and why does it work when it works well?
- To Identify the Principles and Conditions of Successful Discourse Leadership
- How will foreseeable social and cultural trends condition public discourse in the 21st century? What principles for discourse leadership will facilitate effective public conversation? Which conversation models and social behaviors might facilitate the creation of a more "reasoned and reasonable" public discourse in the 21st century?
The Penn National Commission is engaged in an ever-widening conversation designed to test, refine, and disseminate the Commission's ideas. Starting with the membership of the Commission itself, moving outward to a network of emerging academic, professional, and opinion leaders, and ultimately, to local communities, campuses, and the general public, the Commission's public programs reflect the experimental nature of the Commission's inquiry. Rather than issue traditional reports and recommendations, the Commission invites its audiences to test its ideas in the actual conduct of public discourse. In support of these objectives, the Commission is undertaking a variety of informational and educational activities designed to engage a wider leadership and public audience in the Commission's work:
The Leadership Program is designed to create a cadre of leaders skilled in discourse leadership, through:
- PNC Fellows Network of emerging academic, professional, and opinion leaders.
- Public Talk: The Online Journal of Discourse Leadership features presentations from meetings, research and articles by Commission members and staff.
- PNC Leadership Publications document the work and research of the Commission and adapts this work to various audiences.
The Community Program strengthens the ability of communities to engage in robust, diverse, and reasoned public discourse through:
- PNC Community and Campus Network of teachers, librarians, civic, cultural, and non-profit organizations, universities, and colleges.
- PNC Educational Publications: teacher and study outlines, leadership guides, and selected readings for community and campus audiences.
- PNC Videos: videotape series of PNC plenary presentations, model conversations, and campus programs.
The Public Program aims to foster an environment supportive of engaged and productive "public talk," through:
- PNC Website provides the public with vehicles for understanding and participating in the work of the Commission and resources for conducting "reasoned and reasonable discourse," including:
- Bulletin Board: A comment area on the PNC public website permits public input into the Commission's work.
Resource Center: Organizes selected on-line readings, bibliographic and organizational resources (such as links to related websites).
Plenary Meetings Archive: A comprehensive, on-line archive of plenary presentations and discussions (available as text transcripts or video and audio streams).
PNC Public Programs: The PNC will conclude its work not with a report, but with a series of activities designed to foster robust and reasoned public conversation in the next century.
Media coverage of Commission Activities
The University of Pennsylvania's educational philosophy, dating to the principles of its founder, Benjamin Franklin, links the theoretical and the practical and makes the Penn National Commission a natural extension of the University's core identity. The Commission's formation expresses Penn's fundamental commitment to academic excellence, technological innovation in research and communications, and the importance of bringing academic and professional resources to bear on urgent social problems.
Dr. Stephen P. Steinberg, Executive Director
Dr. William D. Boltz, Associate Director
Dr. Cynthia M. Koch, Associate Director
Mr. Michael B. Strong, Technology Coordinator
Ms. Cheryl E. Faulkner, Administrative Assistant
Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community
502 Hollenback Center
3000 South Street
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6325
Phone (215) 573-6666
Fax (215) 573-6667
© 1998 Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. The materials available on this website are not to be duplicated or redistributed without the express written permission of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community.