For sake of our kids, revive civil discourse

Grown-ups, who normally bear the burden of dealing with life's problems, are wearing a bit thin at the edges. A lot of grown-ups are snapping at other grown-ups or calling them names, or publicly questioning their motives, their patriotism or their family tree.

The kids are watching and listening as civil discourse, one of the basic underpinnings of community life, evaporates in fits of bad temper. That's a terrible lesson for young people, the citizens who will have to make their communities and government work in the future.

Fortunately, the young are exactly the people we need to change this and give grown-ups an updated model of the civil conversation they used to use. Around the country, high school students have shown this year that they understand important issues and know how to lead constructive public discussions.

The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, often identified with its role as the provider of seasoned advice on hiring school superintendents, has taken a lead in calling on public officials to show young people civil discourse done right, and on school boards to give students the chance to practice it.

We think CABE is on to a vitally important issue, although our suggestion for solutions includes recognizing the leadership already developing among students on school violence and other subjects.

CABE adopted its brief but pointed resolution a year ago. Civility in public discourse has not improved since, but the state organization prevailed on its counterparts across the country at the National School Boards Association Delegate Assembly to adopt it this spring.

The resolution reads:

CABE urges public officials at all levels of government to model civil discourse in their deliberations, allowing for the thoughtful, beneficial productive exchange of ideas and perspectives.

CABE urges school boards to provide opportunities for students to develop their skills in conflict resolution and consensus building, and for school board members to model these skills in their own conduct.

Many elected officials get an "F" for their stubborn refusal to deal with issues rather than personalities; for counting the cost and benefits to themselves before the common good; and for failing to see that political divisions are costing more than the nation can afford to lose. Unfortunately, such individuals rarely seem to change their stripes.

Instead, we can move on to the young. CABE and NSBA are correct that students need good models in their school life; that's a responsibility adults cannot shirk. The evidence of the peaceable walk-outs and forums held this spring is that many have such models, with more clearly needed.

But students also have the assets of youth. Most haven't lost their sense of humor — they can remember to laugh with others, not at them. Social media is their other language, and as consumers of its various forms they can influence the tone of exchanges. They can choose to make bullying uncool. They can think locally for solutions while getting global inspiration through the reach of their devices.

It should not be lost on us that when "friend" became a verb, so did "unfriend," and suddenly all persons could be divided into two camps: us and them. With the skills of civil discourse, high schoolers can change that kind of climate in their schools. If fewer students feel marginalized, there could be a drop in violence and other anti-social behavior.

As CABE notes, there is a great need for students to develop problem-solving skills. That's how things get done in a democracy, but also in a shipyard, a lab, a dugout.

Students need to be shown that language and tone matter in civil discourse. Words have the power to make something appear true just because it has been said aloud. "They" don't just have opinions different from our own; "they" are dumb or stupid for having those ideas, and they should shut up. Aren't those the same words we told our kindergartners not to use? They should not be hearing them from leaders.

School board officials, parents, teachers: Share the idea of civil discourse with your smart, funny kids and give them your vote of confidence that they can take the lead.  

  

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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