At the end of February, Lycoming College had the honor of hosting a roundtable discussion with U.S. Senator Bob Casey. Participants offered the Senator thoughts on what the federal government could and should do to promote economic development in the Williamsport region.
The roundtable was an invitation-only event but it was attended by thirty-five to forty people, including six Lycoming College students. Several CEOs of local businesses, representatives of UPMC health system, Penn College, the natural gas industry and a manufacturer’s association contributed to the discussion. In addition, the Chamber of Commerce, City Council, a County Commissioner and Lycoming County planners offered important insights. I had the pleasure of serving as moderator, and we explored such critical issues as job growth, business expansion, healthcare, workforce development, government regulation, infrastructure, transportation and federal tax reform.
While no one was asked to reveal their political party affiliation, I am quite certain that there were more republicans than democrats in the room. The dialogue at the roundtable, however, never descended into the negative rhetoric and animus that often emerges during current discussions of public policy in our country. Rather, all participants employed language that was constructive, supported their points with data and reason, and listened carefully to the viewpoints of others. The Senator, in particular, modeled the art of listening and asking probing questions.
As a Ph.D. political scientist with a secondary specialization in political theory, I have read extensively in the literature on the idea of citizenship and the functioning of democratic political systems. In fact, for a number of years, I taught a course called “The Idea of Citizenship.” A common theme in this work is that the health of a democracy can be gauged by the quality of its public discourse. Indeed, from Aristotle to twentieth century German writer Jurgen Habermas, political theorists have argued that civil discourse in the public realm is required for democracy to work. At the same time, many would agree that rude and uncivil behavior has become the norm in contemporary politics.
Our roundtable with Senator Casey, however, stood in stark contrast to the uncivil behavior being reported at town halls around the country. For example, the representative of the health care industry made a cogent case for not repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) unless an alternative system is fully ready to be put in place. She also explained the favorable impact of the ACA’s emphasis on population health management and disease prevention. Everyone in attendance, including business leaders, listened carefully. On a different issue, a representative of the natural gas industry made a plea for reducing excessive regulation and argued that the industry is committed to protecting the environment and ensuring public well-being. Again, we all listened; and Senator Casey asked thoughtful questions to learn more about this perspective. Informed, engaged and respectful deliberation was on display.
I was particularly pleased that six Lycoming students were able to witness this roundtable because their presence goes to the heart of our institutional mission. Dating to its founding in 1812 as an academy, the avowed purposes of this institution have always included preparing young people to become citizens and participate in the democratic process. We have sought to equip students with the capacities required by the ideal of civil discourse.
This commitment to capacity-building for democratic citizenship continues in the 21st century. Today, students at Lycoming College begin building the ability to communicate clearly, utilize evidence, engage in critical reasoning, listen respectfully and appreciate different points of view in first-year seminars. With enrollment limited to 18 students, the first-year seminars are the perfect size for testing and growing these skills. In addition, all seminars emphasize frequent writing assignments, regular classroom participation, and practicing basic research techniques. In short, the seminars help students learn the skills necessary for engaging in civil public discourse.
Opportunities to develop the capacities needed for civil discourse are also embedded throughout the rest of the curriculum. Our 12-to-1 student/faculty ratio ensures that classes are small and encourage student participation. Lycoming has no graduate programs and so the faculty focus its attention exclusively on undergraduates. When combined with a faculty culture that emphasizes a personalized educational experience, the role of faculty as mentors who teach informed discourse is pervasive. Finally, our Center for Enhanced Academic Experiences creates a myriad of opportunities for high impact learning experiences such as May term travel courses, semester-long international exchange programs, research with faculty and community-based courses. Such experiences also nurture the capacity for civil discourse at a high level.
Finally, I want to extend a personal thank you to Senator Casey and the other roundtable participants for renewing my faith in democratic discourse and showing my students that it really can happen.