Ohio State's Civil Discourse Fellows find common ground

Ohio State's Civil Discourse Fellows find common ground

For three inaugural Fellows, finding connection through respectful, open debate is key to solving today's most pressing problems

As a high school student in Hartford, Connecticut, during the U.S. presidential election of 2020, Jacob Scheinblum noticed how difficult it was for some friends and family to openly disagree when opinions clashed, especially about controversial or political topics.

He saw political polarization growing. Civil discourse, he felt, was nearly impossible.

Wanting to be part of the solution to preserve what he believed to be a fundamental part of any democracy, Scheinblum founded a political discourse club at his high school and ran a school-wide campaign on the importance of civil discourse surrounding the presidential election.

As a Civil Discourse Fellow at The Ohio State University, Scheinblum, a second-year student double majoring in philosophy, politics and economics, and anthropology, found a community committed to exploring diverse opinions — and the opportunity to follow his passion.

Launched in spring 2022 as part of Ohio State's Civil Discourse Project, the Civil Discourse Fellows program trains students to engage in principles of civil discourse, plan and moderate public Civil Discourse Forums and serve as ambassadors for civil discourse on campus. The Center for Ethics and Human Values (CEHV), which manages the Fellows program, awards competitive fellowships to eight undergraduates annually. Each Fellow receives a $500 fellowship award and serves from spring semester through the autumn semester of the following academic year.

Forums, a central aspect of the Fellows' learning experience, feature speakers with contrasting views on a controversial issue. During the spring and autumn 2022 semesters, the Fellows planned and hosted four public forums on topics ranging from gun control and open borders to asking if Americans should be proud of their history.

Building on the platform of Ohio State's Shared Values, the Civil Discourse Project brings together expert resources from across the university to provide Ohio State's students, faculty and staff with opportunities to learn about civil discourse and practice skills to engage with different views and opinions they encounter.

Scheinblum, a member of the inaugural Fellows cohort, completed his fellowship in December 2022. In reflecting upon his experience, he recalls wanting to become a Civil Discourse Fellow to demonstrate how it is possible to disagree respectfully and constructively.

"Americans today take their democracy for granted," said Scheinblum. "Political tribalism threatens to erode the foundations of our most important democratic institutions. If we make a conscious effort to understand and empathize with those with whom we disagree, however, we can begin to find common ground and focus on creating productive policy."

Listening with empathy and the goal of understanding are central tenets to civil discourse, according to the CEHV, Ohio State's faculty-led interdisciplinary hub for engagement on ethical challenges shaping the university and the broader community.

For the Fellows, and all civil discourse practitioners, deliberation about matters of public concern is not about winning a debate but about developing mutual respect, building civic trust and seeking to expand knowledge and promote understanding.

Most importantly, CEHV literature clarifies that the word "civil" doesn't refer to civility in the sense of mere politeness, but to civic, in the sense of being oriented toward public life. For the Fellows, and all civil discourse practitioners, deliberation about matters of public concern is not about winning a debate but about developing mutual respect, building civic trust and seeking to expand knowledge and promote understanding.

Like Scheinblum, gaining skills in civil discourse was an important part of the Ohio State experience for Salma Albezreh.

"Coming into Ohio State, I wanted to make sure I Ieft having had the opportunity to engage with students and faculty on topics that require nuance and perspective," said the second-year history major.

As a teen in Dayton, Ohio, Albezreh had already started serving a four-year board term with the Dayton International Peace Museum.

"It is imperative for universities like Ohio State to set an example for their community on the importance of not just civil discourse but also the importance of educating students in the art of civil discourse," she said. "It is one of the critical skills college students should gain from their time in school."

To help students and others feel more confident in engaging in discussions on controversial topics, the CEHV created a short rubric to help anyone navigate these difficult scenarios. Developed with extensive feedback from students, the CEHV’s 4Cs are an easy to remember, practical set of guidelines for conducting civil discourse, both as we engage with others and respond to them.

The 4Cs

  • Be curious. Assume that you have something to learn.
  • Be charitable. Assume that each participant has good intentions.
  • Be conscientious. Listen carefully and speak thoughtfully.
  • Be constructive. Remember that the goal is not to win but to promote better understanding.

Kendal Harris, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, notes that the 4Cs are something everyone can learn and use to promote better understanding. During her Civil Discourse Fellows experience, she recalls how employing the 4Cs prompted her to critically examine the broad negative power of social media in society.

"While social media allows for the quick transfer of information and discussion across diverse backgrounds, it usually isn't utilized for its potential," said the second-year student dual majoring in public affairs and African American and African studies. "As well as this, the political atmosphere in America is not conducive to the sharing of diverse opinions, and tensions run extremely high."

Looking back on what they've gained from their yearlong experience, all three former Fellows believe that teaching and demonstrating civil discourse can positively impact fellow students and the future.

The Civil Discourse Fellows program is an important asset to Ohio State because it fosters a unique environment where differences of opinion are celebrated, added Harris.

“The energy within the forum spaces is electric,” she noted. "New connections are formed through having a space where people can think critically while remaining respectful of each other and their beliefs."

For Albezreh, designing the forum programs from the bottom up —from defining topics and contacting speakers to moderating live — was also incredibly valuable. She’s thankful for the confidence the faculty members placed in the Fellows, and for the self-confidence she gained.

"I encourage all students to seriously invest in your own personal understanding and practice of civil discourse by taking classes, completing trainings or becoming a part of a program like this,” she said, “no matter what your major or future career."

"It's important for Ohio State to host a program like the Civil Discourse Fellows," concluded Scheinblum, "both to provide a forum to discuss some of the most important issues of our times and to demonstrate the etiquette of civil discourse. I believe that this kind of program can have a huge impact on the audience, Fellows and speakers in developing the tools necessary to facilitate productive dialogue. The real challenge is taking those tools beyond the events and applying them in everyday life."

Finding common ground

"Political tribalism threatens to erode the foundations of our most important democratic institutions. If we make a conscious effort to understand and empathize with those with whom we disagree, however, we can begin to find common ground and focus on creating productive policy." Jacob Scheinblum

Gaining critical skills

"It is imperative for universities like Ohio State to set an example for their community on the importance of not just civil discourse but also the importance of educating students in the art of civil discourse. It is one of the critical skills college students should gain from their time in school." Salma Albezreh