Break the Silence

How to create a safe space for real debate in the classroom.

By Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro

If Aristotle was correct that with experience comes wisdom, we should be pretty darn wise by now, at least in terms of teaching undergraduates. We began our academic careers in the 1970s with classes overflowing with baby boomers, before they were replaced in the mid-80s by members of Generation X. When 2000 came around, it was the millennials, and more recently it is Gen Z.

This generation has some remarkable traits, despite all they have gone through. The oldest are now in their mid-20s. Their earliest memories might just be the horrors of 9/11. For this year’s entering undergraduates, born around 2004, it might be the economic panic around the “Great Recession” of 2007 to 2009. Not exactly an easy journey to college. And of course, the days when the most selective colleges and universities boasted about admitting “only” 1 of 5 of their applicants are long gone; 1 out of 20 is now closer to the norm.

There is much to admire about this generation. The students we see in our classes are extraordinary at figuring out how to ace exams and assignments compared with earlier cohorts– no surprise given the culling process that got them here. But they also have a genuine interest in social justice. They devote countless hours to environmental, racial and other important causes—not (just) to pad their resumes for Yale Law and the like, but because they recognize the obligations that come with privilege.

On the other hand—and there is quite the other hand—we find today’s students not only remarkably confident in their views on nearly everything, but desperately scared of being ostracized. Can you blame them for being wary? As Zaid Jilani put it in Persuasion earlier this year, this is “a cohort of young people eager to demonize their colleagues over political differences and shun or shame people for transgressions that previously would’ve been handled with a polite conversation.” With cancel culture comes an understandable fear of being an outcast among your peers. It is one thing for older folks to get cancelled; it is quite another to be twenty and living in a dorm among your detractors.

Getting students to consider that they might just be wrong, to be comfortable articulating not only their opinions but willing to entertain the best arguments of those on the other side, is the challenge facing us today. So how should educators respond?

For the past dozen years we have been team-teaching a course conducting a dialogue between economics and the humanities. In the early days, it was mostly a class on how different academic disciplines approach the search for truth. But, in response to changes on campus and in the larger world, it has evolved to focus on facilitating civil and constructive conversation. This change reflects our view of what members of Generation Z lack—intellectual humility, and practice in taking opposing views seriously.

We ask students to write a series of papers with a common directive: to state their own views, not those of the professors, and in making a compelling case to support their own positions, they must argue against the strongest position of the other side (a technique sometimes known as “steel-manning,” as opposed to straw-manning). Each week we remind them of John Stuart Mill’s great line that “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

An example: we recently prompted them to create a policy for vaccine allocation. As expected, the economics majors tended to argue in terms of maximizing efficiency, while many of the other students contended that economic considerations were of limited relevance during a pandemic. The best students, however, made clear that they truly understood both sides—they could accurately represent the standard economic model, whether or not they supported its application, and they represented well the many objections to using a cost-benefit analysis in a life and death context.

We, as co-professors, realize how important it is to demonstrate the processes of listening and learning. So we argue issues and our interpretations of the readings, sometimes exaggerating our differences for heuristic purposes. Other times we honestly disagree—our goal is to exhibit what it means to listen carefully and sincerely, and not to villainize your intellectual opponents. No matter how heated our arguments get, we make it clear that we respect each other and are interested in moving the conversation forward rather than gaining rhetorical points.

We believe that it would be of incalculable benefit if educators worked together to create more intellectually diverse classroom environments. Yet we realize that interdisciplinary team-taught classes are far from the norm in the academy. Most classes are taught by a single professor and are focused on fulfilling the requirements for a particular major. So with that in mind, here are some pointers for educators hoping to create an open classroom.

First, professors should promote a “what is said here stays here” rule to remind students that the classroom is an intellectual laboratory, not a venue for identifying and exposing heretics. This will give students the confidence to express their true opinions, and to argue against the strongest case from the opposing view (to “steel-man”).

Second, it is essential to set proper expectations for conduct. Most colleges and universities have codes forbidding one member of the community from harassing or intimidating another member on account of their religious viewpoints; some are wise enough to say the same about political views. It doesn’t hurt to include language of this sort on the syllabus and to explicitly remind students that the imperfect and evolving thoughts of their peers aren’t cause for retaliation or public shaming. Our students respond well to this: when they fill out end-of-the-year course evaluations, many express gratitude that our classes model dialogue of a type they all-too-rarely see on campus or in their daily lives.

Finally, educators themselves must be mindful that genuine dialogue is the lifeblood of democracy, requiring an unending exchange—and testing—of ideas. Such an approach is radically different from the human tendencies to catechize ancient doctrines or be swept away by new ideological fashions. Our colleges and universities are designed to be intellectual sanctuaries in which meaningful dialogue can be attempted, reworked and refined. If not in our universities, then where else in society can we hope to achieve this?

These imperatives become even more urgent when we consider the growing numbers of people on both the left and the right who are fast losing patience with the unavoidable imperfections of the liberal, democratic order. Democracy can only survive if people recognize that they might be wrong and that those with whom they disagree may have good motives for their opinions.

The burden is on professors to set an example, one class at a time. Who knows, that might just help America return to tolerance and open enquiry.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University, where Morton Schapiro is president and a professor of economics. Their latest book is “Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us.”