Civil Conversation Protects Our Civil Rights

ByEllen Tucker
On December 5, 2023

Young citizens need civics education to understand their constitutionally guaranteed rights. The best civics teachers also help students learn the skills they need to protect their rights. Two graduates of the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program submitted essays on how they teach these skills to the , placing among the . Both Kymberli Wregglesworth of Onaway, Michigan and Amanda Peters of Frisco, Texas urge students to stay wary of encroachments on their personal rights. Yet both go further. They teach self-government as a cooperative activity. They encourage students to listen to other citizens鈥 perspectives. Pushing students to learn about local government, they teach habits of civil conversation about issues close to home.

Kymberli Wregglesworth teaches the art of productive dialogue.
Kymberli Wregglesworth, a 2016 MAHG graduate, teaches Civics, World history and social studies electives at Onaway High School in Michigan.

Our Apprenticeship in Liberty Begins at the Local Level

鈥淐ivics class should give students an apprenticeship in liberty,鈥 Wregglesworth argued. 鈥淚t should give them not only an  understanding of our founding, our Constitutional system, and the practical process of lawmaking. It should point them to windows of access to involvement in government, even before they are voters.鈥 She spoke of local government processes鈥攕choolboard, city, and county government meetings鈥攖hat her own students observe and report on. These give students a sense of how self-government works, and may even give students opportunities to participate by commenting at such meetings.

Amanda Peters helps students form habits of civil conversation.
Amanda Peters, a 2023 MAHG graduate, teaches AP Government and AP Human Geography at Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas.

Peters agreed. 鈥淐ivic engagement involves more than just showing up to vote. Even before they are eligible to vote, students become civically engaged as they practice the skills of good citizens.鈥 Students do not need to be of voting age to 鈥渂lock walk鈥 for local government candidates. They do not even need to be naturalized citizens to write letters to the lawmakers who represent the districts they live in. In the rapidly growing northern suburb of Dallas where Peters teaches, many students are immigrants from Southeast Asia, and Peters encourages them to learn about the American constitutional system by following politics at the state and local level. 鈥淟aws made at the local level affect students every day, often even more than laws made at the national level.鈥

But the apprenticeship in liberty young citizens need should occur primarily in civics class itself, both Peters and Wregglesworth said. One of the most important skills students need to master, both said, is the art of productive dialogue with fellow community members.

The Small Republic of the Civics Classroom

Peters鈥 and Wreggleworth鈥檚 experience in the MAHG program convinced them that carefully facilitated seminar discussions give students practice in such dialogue. As the 鈥淪tatement of Principles鈥 given to teachers who participate in 色中色 programs explains, teachers gather in these seminars to discuss primary documents of American history, aware of the central importance to Americans of:

equality and freedom, which we understand to be not only fundamental political principles but fundamental educational principles. We engage with our students as equals with us in devotion to the truth and to understanding the documents we study as their authors understood them.  We talk with students, rather than at them, because that is how free and equal individuals converse with one another.  Our manner implies, in brief, that our classrooms are small republics.

鈥淭he small republic鈥 of the civics classroom can have a powerful effect on civic life in America as a whole, Wregglesworth believes. 鈥淭he civics classroom is perhaps the one place in America today where citizens of all groups and backgrounds come together,鈥 she said. 鈥淵ou have students from a variety of racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. You have students from economically advantaged and disadvantaged families. It鈥檚 a microcosm of the larger society. If we can help students function together as a deliberative body as they discuss the issues we face in government, perhaps they鈥檒l learn skills they鈥檒l carry into their lives as adults. Perhaps they鈥檒l learn to build consensus, or at least to compromise with those who disagree with them.鈥

Americans Need More Practice in Civil Conversation

Watching current American political discussion devolve into arguments over contending claims of rights, Wregglesworth notes that Americans simply need more practice in friendly political dialogue. 鈥淲e were told, 鈥榊ou shouldn鈥檛 talk about politics.鈥 But we absolutely should talk about it! If we don’t talk about it on a low stakes level, around the dinner table or with colleagues and friends, we aren’t going to be able to talk about it at a high stakes level when it really matters.鈥

Peters noted that the increasing media emphasis on national rather than local and state government has inhibited productive dialogue.  鈥淟ocal TV stations lack the time, money and talent to adequately cover local news. People aren鈥檛 sufficiently aware of the issues facing local government,鈥 so they don鈥檛 know how to discuss them. While citizens are often afraid of voicing opinions that might offend their neighbors, 鈥渢hey don鈥檛 worry about offending people who live a thousand miles away, with whom their only interaction is on social media,鈥 Peters says. No wonder political discussions become contentious.

How to Teach Civil Conversation

Productive discussion of history and government does not occur automatically. Social studies teachers must lay the groundwork by earning students鈥 trust. Both Wregglesworth and Peters feel fortunate to teach both freshmen and upper classmen. 鈥淲hen I get students for civics, I’ve already had them for world history in 10th grade,鈥 Wregglesworth says. 鈥淭hey know I won鈥檛 let them be bullied by other students for having the outlier opinion. Through trial and error, they learn how to question their peers鈥 ideas without attacking their peers. I tell them, we’re going to debate issues and opinions. We’re not going to debate people. In this classroom, we are all equal to one another.鈥

In his painting, “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States,” Howard Chandler Christy pays special tribute to Franklin, whom he situates between Hamilton and Madison, in the middle foreground of his canvas. Perhaps he thought Franklin’s endorsement of mutual respect and compromise just as critical to the Constitution’s ratification as the essays of Publius. (United States Capitol.)

She does advise students that their opinions will carry greater weight if they are backed by research. 鈥淭he person whose opinion is based on one YouTube video cannot be as persuasive as the person who has looked at a range of alternatives and can say, 鈥楬ere鈥檚 why I disagree with this option and support this alternative.鈥欌

Primary documents offer starting points for civil conversation. 鈥淚 often find myself implementing in my own classroom the same type of discussions we had in MAHG,鈥 Peters said. 鈥淟ike the MAHG faculty, I tell students, 鈥楾hese are our focus questions for the document we鈥檙e discussing today.鈥欌 Then she encourages students to engage in what she calls the . 鈥淚t鈥檚 based on a practice developed at Philips Exeter Academy, yet it鈥檚 very like the discussion method used in MAHG seminars. I throw out a question to begin the discussion, then the students take the lead. A student responds to my question, then calls on another student to comment further. 鈥淓ach student who comments must respond to what another student has just said, rather than making a point about an idea discussed earlier. They must keep current with where the discussion has gone.鈥 Through this process, students practice careful listening and respectful response. Developing 鈥渁 kind of camaraderie,鈥 they commit to the rules they have established.

Primary Documents Focus Discussion and Teach Compromise

Since beginning her MAHG studies, Peters has brought into civics class many more historical documents than she previously used. 鈥淣ow, when I teach the Constitutional Convention, I conclude by asking students to read the speech Benjamin Franklin wrote to be read to delegates on the last day of their work (September 17, 1787).鈥 Franklin, alluding to the fact that none of the delegates emerged from the negotiations having secured every constitutional feature they had hoped for, describes his own feelings:

I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.

鈥淒ebates in the Federal Convention of 1787, by James Madison, a Member.鈥 Record for Monday, September 17. Edited by Gordon Lloyd. Ashbrook Publishing, 2014.

鈥淓veryone knows Franklin is a smart guy,鈥 Peters says. 鈥淵et he is telling the other delegates, 鈥業 know that I don’t know everything. So, despite my reservations, I support what we鈥檝e done here. And I hope all of you will leave this place and sell the heck out this Constitution during the ratification process.鈥欌

Wregglesworth teaches habits of civil conversation when students raise questions about certain constitutional features. For example, many students find it hard to understand the Electoral College, especially when a  candidate who wins the popular vote tally loses the election. Wregglesworth directs them to online articles recommending reforms to the presidential electoral system. 鈥淧ick one proposal and explain to the class why it is better than the current system,鈥 she says. 鈥淚f you research the options, and you feel that no one proposal really fixes the problem, make a Frankenstein out of elements of two proposals. Then explain that one to us.鈥

Students bring such reform ideas to the class as a whole, who critique each idea together, working toward a consensus about the best plan. 鈥淚f I can get them to cooperate and come up with novel ideas to make the country better, maybe at least a few of them will carry a willingness to work with other citizens into their adult lives,鈥 Wregglesworth said.  

鈥淒emocracy is always hard,鈥 Wregglesworth said. 鈥淭he founders knew it was hard. Still, they trusted themselves, and they trusted posterity, to make democracy work. And for the most part, democracy is still working.鈥


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