The normal give and take of democratic deliberation between citizens, while not always achieved in practice, has been the benchmark in American political culture over the course of our nation’s history. University of Florida law professor John Stinneford says, however, that these habits of free people are increasingly at risk.
“I think we have all noticed in recent years that society has become more polarized and civil discourse has declined,” he notes. “Instead of engaging with opposing viewpoints, we increasingly try to denigrate or destroy anyone who holds them. If this trend continues, many people worry that our over two-century experiment in democracy will fail.”
A Harvard law graduate who joined UF’s Levin College of Law in 2009, Stinneford is looking to help revive civil discourse as the inaugural director of The Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education.
The Hamilton Center looks to broaden and deepen civics education at the university level, an effort that many on both sides of the political divide recognize is necessary. Stinneford says that when he moderated a seminar last year for a bipartisan group of state and federal judges, the judges identified a lack of civics education as one of the greatest challenges facing our country. They reported that citizens and lawyers who come before them often display “a serious lack of knowledge about how the government is structured and how democracy is supposed to work.”
“We need efforts at every education level to teach civics,” Stinneford contends, “and instill basic values that are required of citizens living in a democracy, such as engaging in civil discourse and trying to reach resolutions without trying to destroy each other.” He says that through the Center’s curriculum and programming, students will have the opportunity to gain the “knowledge, habits of thought, analytic abilities, and character that are essential for free citizens in a free society.”
Stinneford describes the Center’s threefold mission as follows: educating students in the Western intellectual tradition and the debates surrounding the American Founding; offering public programming, including public lectures, debates, and symposia that model civil discourse; and assisting the Florida Department of Education in training K-12 teachers so that they can deliver high-quality civics education to their students.
The classes the Center offers at the University of Florida will, according to Stinneford, “introduce students to the core texts and great debates of Western Civilization, enabling students to think through the great questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the best way to structure society? What role can I play in promoting the common good?”
Although the Hamilton Center has a unique mission, Stinneford finds inspiration in programs at other universities, including the core curricula at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, as well as The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) at Arizona State University, a program with similar aspirations of renewing the bonds of civic friendship among citizens.
Although some UF faculty have expressed skepticism about the Hamilton Center, Stinneford emphasizes that his goal is to build on the university’s strengths and to develop strong relationships with existing departments: “The Center’s success is integrally related to the success of the University of Florida as a whole. We look forward to building ties throughout the university over time.”
Center faculty are already offering a limited number of courses at the University of Florida, and the Center has scheduled a series of public events featuring speakers such as Princeton’s Robert George, Union Theological Seminary’s (and formerly Harvard’s and Princeton’s) Cornel West, Georgetown’s Randy Barnett, the University of Pennsylvania’s Mitchell Berman, and Peter Berkowitz of Stanford and the Hoover Institution.
A friend and champion of the Hamilton Center, Berkowitz says that it will provide students with “a liberal education in the best sense,” furnishing “students’ minds with the ideas and events – and the controversies surrounding them – that formed Western civilization and shaped America’s constitutional order.” “By transmitting knowledge, protecting free speech, and fostering civil discussion, the Hamilton Center will equip students to think for themselves and contribute to the public interest.”
Promoting a culture of civil discourse is something close to Stinneford’s heart – in no small part because it is essential for maintaining self-government: “A willingness to engage with neighbors rather than canceling each other will prevent our system of government from breaking down, replacing democracy with chaos or dictatorship,” he argues. “We think it couldn’t happen here, but it could.”