Pedagogies for the Public Square

We cannot all be right in the public square.

March 19th, 2015

Imagine a classroom where you are teaching students about the global politics of human rights. To illustrate a minor point, you ask the students to give you a human rights problem to discuss. One of your students shouts out "female genital mutilation." As an instructor, this could be a potential landmine—it is an uncomfortable topic with layers of complexity. But in other ways, perhaps this is the safest topic possible because the chances that anyone in your class has any personal experience with it are relatively low. So you carefully lead your students through a discussion of the issues surrounding FGM, and the conversation seems fruitful, even if relatively uncomfortable. Some students suggest that the girls threatened by this procedure have a choice and could simply leave their communities. Other students erupt with indignation that anyone would even suggest an eleven year old girl has the agency to make such a choice. You model for your students the best way to frame unpopular opinions, and you help them navigate the waters surrounding uncomfortable public issues.

At the end of the class, you gather your things to leave the classroom. At the top of your papers is a two-page, hand-written letter from one of your students who came to the United States when she was a child, a refugee from a war-torn African country. The student did not contribute to the class debate. In this letter she articulates that she has a hard time sitting in classes discussing issues like this. Most students are eager to argue their opinion, despite having no lived experience to inform it; whereas her own story has been intrinsically shaped by the dynamics surrounding this issue, and she struggles to know how to navigate conversations like the one you had in class. As a professor, your heart breaks. You fear that you unwittingly contributed to your student's pain, and you wonder how you might have better facilitated an environment that was both open and safe, experimental and sensitive.

How might good pedagogy in a political science classroom translate into the formation of robust agents of democracy?

Students need a safe place to "try on" the process of public deliberation. They have to learn how to exercise their freedom to express ideas and to do so in a manner that respects their peers. They need to learn how to listen while also seeking to identify truth on a given issue. In this way, the political science classroom is like a laboratory for democratic participation. Here students can start to acquire habits that they will carry with them into the public square.

This story comes from my own personal experience teaching The Global Politics of Human Rights at a Christian liberal arts college. But the class presents a challenge that we all encounter in daily life. In fact, my first introduction to this dynamic came as a young girl accompanying my father to my small town coffee shop. I observed the men in my town gathering every morning to debate political issues over coffee. These were bitter fights between old men and young men, democrats and republicans, Christians and non-Christians, liberals and conservatives. Yet no matter how contentious the conversation, they departed as friends (even if angry friends): Every morning the same group of men returned to resume the conversation. My experience as a child in that coffee shop helped shape my ability to navigate contentious conversations in my classroom.

So what lessons can we learn here? How might good pedagogy in a political science classroom translate into the formation of robust agents of democracy? In other words, what can the public square learn from the classroom?

As I reflect on my pedagogy—how I teach political science—I see two important lessons for how we form democratic citizens. First, we can look at the environment of the classroom as a small-scale model of the public square. Second, creative means of engagement within the classroom can be replicated in the public square. In making this comparison between the classroom and the public square, we bump up against two questions basic to engagement in both spheres. How do we ensure that claims in the public square are evaluated based on their relative merits instead of the power position of those making the claims? Conversely, how do you communicate moral standards on issues that are so differently understood across diverse perspectives?

Parallels in Environments: Setting an Agenda

Students need a safe place to "try on" the process of public deliberation

Just like in my classrooms, the members of the public square are diverse in terms of background, worldview, and life experiences. They hold a plethora of opinions on any particular issue. These opinions and perspectives must be navigated in a manner that fosters deliberation on one hand (an open environment) but allows for the effective evaluation of arguments on the other hand (a purposive and principled environment). A claim that all points are equally valid is based on a logical fallacy. We cannot all be right in the public square. The challenge is to foster a collaborative environment where ideas and perspectives can be articulated, evaluated, and combined so that the best solutions to public problems are identified.

The verbs I am using to describe public life—navigate, foster, collaborate, evaluate—all require an agent with responsibility for the conversation. This is the second way that the classroom is a model of the public square: there are power dynamics that can facilitate or undermine its effectiveness. Both environments have agenda setters who frame conversations: the professor in the classroom and the elites, policymakers, or the media in the public square. Both environments also have groups that engage within that agenda: students in the classroom and responsive citizens in the public square. In both environments, cultures emerge that define the relationship between the agenda setter and those responsive to the agenda. This culture—the values and attitudes that guide engagement—can either be unintentional and potentially destructive, or it can be intentionally shaped by those with agenda-setting power.

Agenda setters have a responsibility for shaping culture as stewards of their respective environments. The professor has a mandate from her institution, and an additional responsibility to serve the broader scholarly community. Within that mandate, she has an obligation to model the values and attitudes that teach students to respect each other as they learn the processes of deliberation. The agenda setter in the public square has a similar mandate, regardless of the source of their agenda setting power. Think, for example, of a political media pundit. As a professional, he has a mandate from his company that largely determines the topics on which he reports; but within that mandate, he also has an obligation to model for the public how to constructively engage and build upon opposition. Both types of agenda setters have positions of power, and both are most effective when they use those positions to model the values and attitudes that facilitate constructive engagement. The pedagogies of the political science classroom might have something to teach our pundits.

Parallels in Engagement: Cultivating Virtues

But how does that process work? What tools do agenda setters have at their disposal to build a culture that fosters better engagement? First, agenda setters can uniquely connect process to virtues. For example, an important part of the class experience is the process of intellectual life. While exercises like lectures, class discussions, papers, and tests convey information to students and ensure that they have sufficiently processed the information to pass the class, arguably the more important parts of class life are the moral virtues being instilled through that process. Through classroom processes, students develop habits and dispositions that continue beyond the classroom experience. They learn how to engage across difference, collaborate toward solutions, and value others' contributions instead of merely tolerating them. They also learn that failure should be interpreted in light of future success. Students don't just accidentally pick up these virtues. In fact, they are just as likely to pick up habits of identifying learning shortcuts, avoiding failure at all costs, and becoming cynical and dismissive of others' opinions. So what makes the difference between a classroom environment that imparts positive virtues instead of destructive habits?

What tools do agenda setters have at their disposal to build a culture that fosters better engagement?

The professor must use their agenda setting power responsibly to shape the students' experience. To the extent that the professor focuses on the power inherent in their position, the relationship between the professor and the student is merely a contract; terms, responsibilities, and corresponding penalties are clearly delineated. Such an environment implicitly conveys values like: 1) jumping through hoops will help you achieve a good grade, 2) the students' role is to consume knowledge, and 3) the professor's role is to produce knowledge. When the students leave the classroom, they will be good consumers of knowledge, but lack the ability to deliberate and collaborate toward effective solutions. But when the professor focuses on the relational environment of the classroom, the dynamic between the professor and the student is more of a covenant; terms are still clearly delineated, but the responsibilities are worked out within a relationship that transcends the specified period of the course. In such an environment, the values conveyed are more like: 1) your development is more important than hoop-jumping skills, 2) all learners uniquely contribute to the classroom, and 3) the professor is a fellow learner. Students are more likely to leave the classroom having been surprised by their peers' contributions and better able to collaborate effectively across difference.

Similarly, part of public life is about process—we vote, engage in debate, participate in associations around important issues, and mobilize for social justice. But we also internalize virtues as we engage in these processes. In fact, the virtues we learn are quite similar to classroom virtues—we learn how to engage across difference, collaborate toward solutions, value instead of merely tolerate, and build on failure to find success. This culture does not automatically emerge around political behavior; citizens can instead internalize values and attitudes like apathy and cynicism. How can agenda setters like public figures, elites, and the media in the public square tip the culture of public life toward the first set of values instead of the second, more destructive set of values?

First, agenda setters must remain intentionally responsive to engaged citizens in order to foster a collaborative culture. Second, agenda setters should model for citizens the values and attitudes necessary to promote a healthy culture in public life. For example, when agenda setters model that conflict is a sign of healthy life in the public square, engaged citizens will increasingly see the transformative worth of deliberation. When agenda setters demonstrate that failure is the foundation for success, engaged citizens will move toward valuing the courage and innovation necessary for risks. Finally, when agenda setters make truth claims in the public square that can be contested, they model for engaged citizens the process of evaluating truth claims instead of treating every claim as equally valid. We can respect others while still having fundamental agreements about what is true and just. Agenda setters must model what this type of engagement looks like in the public square.

But what about those of us who are engaged citizens and not agenda setters? First, we have to learn how to find a manner of influencing agenda setters. Identify and activate channels of influence, and follow through on engagement in those channels. Second, we have to model for other engaged citizens a certain patience with uncertainty of public life, and a willingness to be uncomfortable in the interest of moving toward solutions. Third, we have to be intentional about collaborating instead of polarizing. Everyone who is engaged brings a certain set of experiences, perspectives, and beliefs to their engagement in public life that have value. We can only be effective to the extent that we recognize our need for a plurality of perspectives in order to find effective solutions.

After I received that letter from the student in my class, I invited her out to lunch so I could hear her story. She shared with me about losing her parents to a civil war when she was a baby, and growing up with extended family who fled to the United States when her safety as a maturing girl was jeopardized. She used her experiences to educate her peers on the complex dynamics involved in FGM, and in doing so took steps toward fulfilling her calling to engage in public health as a voice for change.

What did my students learn from this experience about being citizens? This particular student learned that a courageous step to reach out gave her a voice of influence. In doing so, she modeled for her peers that it is crucial to understand the nuance of a given issue in order to more effectively engage. Because I, as the agenda setter , was responsive to her challenges to my agenda, all the students left the class with a clearer understanding of how moral arguments can be framed across diverse understandings . But I hope they're not only leaving with more information: I hope our learning has been a formative experience that has begun to instill habits for a lifetime. If so, then the classroom has been a training ground for their lives as citizens.


Becca McBride earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Belmont University in Political Science in 2002. She then earned a Master of Arts degree from Georgetown University in Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies in 2004. At Georgetown she specialized in Chechnya, violent ethnic conflict, and terrorism. While at Georgetown she started working for the US Government as a Russian analyst; she continued as an analyst after graduation. When she relocated back to Nashville, TN with her family, she started as an instructor at Belmont University. After teaching at Belmont for four years, she decided to return to graduate school and pursue a PhD. In 2013, she graduated from Vanderbilt University with a PhD in political science. At Vanderbilt she focused on International Relations and Political Theory. She joined the Political Science faculty at Calvin College in fall 2013 and her research focuses on policy diffusion, child welfare, intercountry adoption, and the role of non-state actors in the international system.


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