“In this age of Twitter, is reasoned discourse truly an historical relic, or is there hope for its revival?” Deanna Kuhn, professor of psychology and education at Teachers College Columbia University, examined in Scientific American.
A timely topic. Almost 242 years ago, in September 1774, our founding fathers engaged in reasoned discourse. That was when the First Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia. According to History.com, the congress was structured with emphasis on the equality of participants, and to promote free debate. That first congress disbanded in October 1774, but reconvened in May 1775 as the Second Continental Congress. Reasoned discourse over the next 14 months led to our Declaration of Independence, then, over the next 11 years to our Constitution.
“In this strangest of American election years,” Kuhn wrote, “discourse, long regarded as the lifeblood of democratic societies, appears more endangered than ever before, confined to sound bites and slogans of the moment.”
The limitation of Twitter’s 140 characters for reasoned discourse was highlighted last week by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He told Bloomberg.com that the rise of Donald Trump could be attributed partly to the “revolutionary phenomenon” of social media, which “creates these waves of sentiment and emotion” and promotes the idea that complex problems have simple solutions.
“Twitter and all these things, if you’re not careful, they create the era of the loudmouth,” said Blair. “You get a sort of dismissive attitude towards people who say these situations are very complex, the problems are very difficult, the solutions take time.”
Our founding fathers were dealing with, so understood complex problems and the need for reasoned discourse to address them. That understanding informed their decisions on how the new U.S. Congress was to be structured to encourage discourse.
Reasoned discourse remains “crucial to the future of society” and must become a learned practice, says Kuhn. That’s vastly different from the “echo chamber of like-minded individuals” provided by Twitter and social media.
The goals of reasoned discourse are to first understand, not persuade, then to find common ground and mutual benefit.
Kuhn is “cautiously optimistic” that reasoned discourse can be revived. “With the right setting and little prompting, we have found, young teens are ready to engage deeply in debating complex issues of the day with their peers.”
The good news is that the intellectual skills and values needed for reasoned discourse to flourish as a cultural practice can be taught, says Kuhn.
“Educators today are talking a lot about the need to equip students with 21st century skills. In a democratic society, reasoned discourse should be one of them.”
Thomas Jefferson would agree: “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.”
Reasoned discourse is an essential of team building skills taught in industry to improve performance. Reckon someone could teach this to our congressmen and legislators?