They will continually thrust their own low roof, with its narrow skylight, between you and the sky, when it is the unobstructed heavens you would view.
-- H.D. Thoreau, "Life Without Principle"
As Election Day nears, the commentary becomes more and more fevered and polarized. In the middle of all this political juggling, however, students at Hofstra University are learning to present key issues in a different form. Their focus is deliberative -- not partisan or adversarial.
Hofstra Center for Civic Engagement's "Deepening Democracy through Deliberation" project, in partnership with the nonpartisan Kettering Foundation research institution, set lofty goals. One was to conduct dozens of issue forums leading up to the presidential debate Hofstra will host Tuesday. More than 60 forums in schools, libraries and other venues across Nassau and Suffolk counties have been completed so far, and 50 more are scheduled. They are led by the center's 23 undergraduate democracy fellows. Some of the events are in intergenerational settings, involving teenagers and folks into their 90s.
Unlike the televised political debates, these issue forums were created to inspire communication about delicate policy issues -- immigration, internet privacy, the debt crisis, America's role in the world, and the environment. The topics were developed and formatted into issue guides by the National Issues Forums Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
Ground rules specifically formulated to foster deliberative discussion are explained up front for each forum, so that participants can accept the process of civil engagement. The goal is not to pick a position and defend it; rather, it's to use reliable data to transform personal ideas into shared public opinions.
Each guide presents a policy issue from three or four distinct perspectives, going beyond the simple debate of "I win; you lose." The facilitators foster a discussion that covers the pros and cons of each approach. At the end of each forum, the participants are asked to seek common ground, to pinpoint anything that they feel has been left out of the discussion, and to consider what it would take to agree on policy options that are consistent with their values.
Let's give it a try. Pretend this is the beginning of a forum. The topic is "The Energy Problem: Choices for an Uncertain Future."
I'll share my view as a forum participant, not a facilitator or expert.
Years ago, I would stroll through Stehli Beach in Bayville picking up metal cans dirtying the majestic ocean's sands. We would watch the crabs scurry, the birds swoop down to grab that night's prey, and the waves gently glide until they met their rocky end. At that time of carefree childhood, it was a game to see who could gather the most cans, spot the fastest crab or point out the biggest bird. Today my memories of this scene have become complicated: Improperly discarded cans are litter, and some people now believe the tumultuous surf indicates global warming.
Many people, and especially school-age youth, have not made this same connection. Where some see an improperly discarded can, I see a lost opportunity and lack of awareness of a larger chain of events. For every can that isn't recycled, more bauxite ore is smelted for aluminum, and with this comes pollution, global warming -- and the tumultuous surf. A 19-year-old friend once said to me, "We're all gonna die one day, so why should I care about the environment?" I later discovered that she was simply parroting the perspective of her parents -- which would be acceptable if she had conducted her own research and done her own thinking. But instead, to paraphrase Thoreau, her parents thrust their own low roof, with its narrow skylight, between their daughter and the sky.
Now consider the approaches covered in the topic's issue guide. Supporters of one position seek to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy out of fear that political instability in the Middle East may make supplies unreliable. A second lobbies for the development of alternative resources. The third outlook claims that reducing energy consumption should be the focus, regardless of the type of energy used. These are three very different perspectives, and the goal is to find commonality.
Clearly my friend and I would disagree on environmental policy, but deliberative forums emphasize flexibility -- that is, the realization that accomplishing any goal necessitates some compromise. Issues are complex, and the deliberative process of listening to the opposition opens doors to new perspectives and helps participants consider trade-offs that could be made to reach a common ground for action.
In a successful forum, participants leave with a deeper awareness of the options and their costs and benefits. The key is to let the deliberative process provide a new way to interact. If enough people seek this kind of truly democratic discourse, it could spark another way to act as citizens.
During a high school forum, a student came up to me and asked, "How can I get more involved?" This is the question every forum moderator wants to hear, and fortunately, I've heard it often.
Our goal has been to encourage individuals to be more attentive. No one has to be an expert to explore the important issues facing our society. Good, deliberative conversations can lead to understandings that become the foundation for the common good. They can help us see the unobstructed heavens.
Ian Poulos of Roslyn Heights is a Herman Goldman Foundation Democracy Fellow with the Hofstra Center for Civic Engagement. He's a senior enrolled in Hofstra's six-year accelerated law program, majoring in labor studies.