We Must Teach Civil Civic Discourse to Make San Diego Work

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By Carl Luna

Most schools no longer teach cursive handwriting. Most schools also spend little time on teaching block printing  or even keyboarding skills. Indeed, the whole curriculum of language arts—the means, media and skills of effective interpersonal communication—have increasingly been marginalized in an age of mandatory testing and voluntary texting.  Our students leave school able to digitally communicate with thumb and index finger on a phone or tablet but not in face-to-face dialogue with their fellow corporeal citizens.

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In  Solana Beach, a debate over allowing more parties with alcohol at a community center turned rancorous, with invectives hurled, friendships ended and a community divided. In Coronado, a public forum on open-campus policies for students degenerated into parents verbally attacking the character of each other’s children. In San Diego the mayoral campaign became reduced to the labeling of opposing candidates as untrustworthy tools of nefarious special interests.  Even after policy and electoral choices are made, the communities involved remained divided, suspicious and angry.

Mesa College Political Science Professor Carl Luna announces plans for the new Institute for Civil Civic Engagement.

So what do these two separate issues—changing education and uncivil civil engagement—have in common? The answer is that the later—incivility in public discourse around San Diego—is closely tied to the former—the simple fact that we don’t teach the skills of successful civic engagement in our community as well as we should. The result: as the skill of civil engagement deteriorates, so too does civility in our public lives and, so too, do our sense of community and our ability to resolve our common problems.

The skills of engaging in civil and successful civic engagement are not something that develop naturally in human beings—anyone raising a toddler understands that, left to their own devices, children can be the cutest  little sociopaths you’ll ever love. Nor are these skills learned simply by social osmosis—anyone familiar with human history understands man’s capacity for barbarism. These skills, like all of the values that underpin civilization, must be taught and retaught continually across the generations

Yet, under pressure of budgets and other priorities, we have allowed the teaching of these critical skills for  maintaining our community through civil  discourse to wither.  Mass media, meanwhile, has presented the model of uncivil discourse—the squawk journalism of talk radio, cable TV and the blogosphere, both left and right—to become the new model of community dialogue. Our political processes become gridlocked, reduced to “my side are saints and yours are devils” debate which does nothing to help resolve the increasingly complex problems our complex society confronts, problems where there are no clear and easy choices, problems where compromise—and mutual sacrifice for the common good—are demanded.

The mission of the new Institute for Civil Civic Engagement is to try and make San Diegans aware of the problems incivility causes in our pursuit of the public good. Moreover, the institute, announced last week at Restoring Respect’s third annual conference to restore civility to civic dialogue, will be a vehicle to develop programs and curricula in our K-12 and post-secondary institutions which teach students the critical communication skills necessary for civil engagement with their fellow citizens. An example of this was our workshop held last week at the University of San Diego on “Creating a Culture of Campus Civility” attended by middle school, high school and college students, faculty, staff and administrators.  The Institute—a partnership between the University of San Diego, San Diego Mesa College and San Diego City College—will, work in the weeks and months ahead with other partner institutions and organizations (such as the Burnham Center for Civic Engagement) to create forums, programs and events designed to enhance the San Diego community’s civil civic “infrastructure,”  our capacity to speak with—and not just at—each other.

In so doing we will work to create a San Diego in which every student emerges from kindergarten to college fully equipped with the skills necessary to be an active and effective participant in the decisions of our community.  In so doing, we will work to create resources the community can access to conduct effective and civil dialogues that resolve problems for the common good.  Our goal is to help encourage the creation of a San Diego that is America’s finest civil city, a San Diego where public dialogues such as those in Coronado and Solana Beach end in handshakes and consensus rather than shaking fists and division.

Ambitious? Yes.  Necessary? Unfortunately so.  Possible? There is nothing we, as a community, working civilly together, cannot accomplish.

Carl Luna is a professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College and the director of the Institute for Civil Civic Engagement at the University of San Diego.

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