You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

illustration of man and a woman pointing at each other with loud voice marks around their heads, as if in a heated argument

vatrushka67/Istock/Getty Images Plus

As a philosophy professor at a small, Catholic, women’s liberal arts college in the Midwest, I have watched the national controversies currently roiling elite, secular universities on the East Coast and public universities in red states with special interest. This is not merely because I teach and write about dialogue on campuses, but also because my own institution is mired in a culture war that has raised many of the same questions about how to support inclusion and belonging while creating space for viewpoint diversity among various stakeholders.

Considering these conflicts alongside each other—the national conversation on higher education as macrocosm and my college community’s painful turmoil as microcosm—I have been reflecting on my work on dialogue and trust building to think about how campuses can step out of intractable conflict and build greater trust. And I realized that we can’t untangle these conflicts without first asking ourselves, “What is our primary purpose as a college or university?”

I would answer in the following way: Colleges and universities should provide learning environments where students participate in the search for knowledge that spans disciplines and millennia, while building the skills to critically evaluate a variety of views and expand their moral imaginations. The ultimate aim is to prepare each student for not only a career but also a flourishing life as a person and an active participant in democracy.

I suspect that most faculty members, administrators, students, parents and members of the public would generally agree with that characterization. So perhaps, colleges and universities can build trust by doing a better job of centering and defending our primary role and goal of supporting knowledge acquisition, critical thinking and moral imagination.

What would this look like? First, higher education must always defend academic freedom and the robust exchange of diverse ideas. Academic freedom, protected by tenure, makes the acquisition and critique of knowledge possible. No one knows what ideological orthodoxy will hold sway in the future, so it is short-sighted and potentially disastrous for partisans to jeopardize the academy’s role in preserving freedom of thought and expression.

But if defending academic freedom were the sum total of higher education’s role, college campuses might not be places where anyone could actually learn. If campuses were merely free speech zones in which the loudest voices line up to shout back and forth, why bother with a college degree when you could just head over to Twitter (now X)?

So in addition to securing academic freedom, we must ensure that students can actually learn something in our classrooms, and for this we need to offer hospitality and build trust. It is well documented that environments which are hostile to underrepresented folks or do not offer representation of diverse identities limit learning for some students. Similarly, classrooms that provoke defensiveness, silence minority viewpoints or do not offer representation of diverse viewpoints limit learning for others.

To learn effectively, students should feel that they can bring their whole selves to the academic project. They should feel comfortable taking risks, trying out new ideas, speaking up when something matters to them, having their experiences recognized as a source of knowledge, pushing back against views that cause discomfort, and having their own views critiqued by faculty members and other students. For any of those goods to be possible, classrooms and campuses have to be places of trust and shared inquiry—not merely free speech zones or platforms for faculty members on soapboxes.

Increasing Attention, Decreasing Reactivity

If we are to defend academic freedom and promote a climate of trust and learning, campuses must invest in two distinct areas of growth simultaneously. We must help community members increase their attention to the impact of their speech and actions on others and decrease their reactivity to the presence of views that differ from their own.

Increasing attention to our impact on others is a minimum qualification for success in a pluralistic society. No one who believes their experiences are universal can engage effectively in the workforce or in a diverse democracy. Thus, education must invite students to explore the breadth of human difference and the injustices that can result from being insufficiently attentive to those differences. The key here will be to do this in a way that is invitational to all students as well as sensitive to polarizing language that may turn off a portion of them immediately, short-circuiting their ability to learn.

When it comes to helping community members decrease their reactivity to differing views, higher education has come up short recently. In an effort to create hospitable learning environments, we have inadvertently created climates that many students feel invite only certain viewpoints. I have learned this hard lesson myself, slowly and painstakingly, by teaching dialogue classes that enroll equal numbers of conservative and progressive students. Listening to the varied experiences of all these students, I hear repeatedly that in classrooms where some students’ views are privileged and some are excluded, all students lose out. Conservative students report feeling silenced and becoming frustrated and defensive, limiting their learning potential. Progressive students worry they are missing out on the opportunity to practice supporting their views against criticism or to understand other perspectives. To avoid these obstacles to learning, we must create classrooms that explore a wide range of intellectually defensible viewpoints in a way that is invitational, accurate and low stakes.

Practically speaking, how can faculty members pursue these dual goals in our classrooms? How can we help students increase their attention to their impact on others and decrease their reactivity to views and experiences that are different from their own? In my own experience, the most powerful way to do both, is to focus first on helping students decrease their reactivity by creating a climate of trust where vulnerability is possible and then invite students to increase their attention to the experiences of others.

To help students decrease their reactivity to viewpoints that are different from their own, we must create environments marked by psychological safety. By psychological safety, I do not mean freedom from discomfort—in fact, quite the opposite. It is only when psychological safety is present that we as people can take the uncomfortable risk of critically evaluating our own pre-existing views and the views presented by others—both essential to the process of learning. To create psychological safety, instructors must be clear that everyone, including ourselves, gets things wrong; everyone is both informed and blinkered by their experience; everyone has something valuable to contribute to the learning community; and everyone needs correction at times.

Some Best Practices

What practices can help build psychological safety and enable students to reduce reactivity to new or different ideas?

First, we can bring explicit trust-building exercises into the classroom to ensure that students become comfortable sharing their experiences and will be more likely to speak up when something matters to them or to push back when a peer has offered a view that is difficult or painful to hear. I have had good results starting class by pairing students and having them choose a question to discuss from a list of 36 Questions for Increasing Closeness, shown to promote trust building. Students love responding to these questions, and the laughter and empathy they invoke across the classroom break the ice in anticipation of the contentious issues we go on to discuss. To promote a sense of belonging for everyone, I also build in time throughout the semester for students to write reflectively about and share the experiences they bring to the course, reminding them that their experiences give them authority and expertise.

Once we begin to establish trust in the classroom, we can help students understand and respond to defensiveness productively when it inevitably occurs. To do so, we must encourage students to notice what is going on in their minds and bodies when defensiveness occurs, instead of shutting down when such biological processes fire up. We must help them see their response as a beacon alerting them to an opportunity to practice curiosity and to ask themselves: “What is causing me to have this feeling?” “What values feel under attack?” “How can I respond with curiosity rather than defensiveness?” By normalizing, even celebrating, students’ ability to notice and respond to the common problem of defensiveness, we help them build resilience and lower their reactivity, both of which are positively correlated with learning.

In my experience, if we can help students feel comfortable enough in our classrooms that they are able to decrease their own reactivity first, we can then invite them to increase their attention to the views and experiences of others—another essential condition for learning. But students must build a particular set of skills to do this well. The most important, and perhaps least taught, is listening. I have found that introducing and giving students the opportunity to practice the listening skill called looping is very beneficial. When using looping as a tool, students repeat back the emotions and values they hear in other students’ words. That enables the listener to ask for clarification and confirmation, so misunderstandings based on stereotypes and assumptions are less likely.

When practicing engaged listening, students will probably hear views they disagree with or experiences that are quite different from their own. To move from listening well to learning, students must also build the skill of asking curious questions. A curious question is one that invites another person to explain their view further, without putting them on the defensive or trying to catch them in a contradiction. Curious questions encourage the speaker to connect their experiences and values to their viewpoints.

Curious questions might include: “What is something people often misunderstand about your viewpoint?” or “I wonder what experiences led to the development of that view for you?” Curious questions help students connect the dots between different viewpoints and experiences, which makes it possible to recognize why someone might hold a different view. Merely understanding that someone’s views grow out of their distinct experiences helps students recognize the contingency of viewpoints, helps them feel less threatened by the existence of a different viewpoint, and may even help them to become more open to critically evaluating their own views.

Such listening and questioning skills will be more effective if we emphasize that learning is the goal in our classrooms, not persuasion. Certainly, changing one’s mind is a possible outcome of learning. However, if persuasion to a particular viewpoint is the goal of either the teacher or students, defensiveness is more likely to occur and, in fact, persuasion is less likely. In contrast, when we aim to understand rather than to persuade, we are more likely to invite everyone in the classroom to participate openly, rather than to stoke the defensiveness that short circuits curiosity and shuts down learning.

Bad Faith Actors

Notably, the efforts that I’ve described should also help address another toxic force in higher education: bad faith actors who seek to sow conflict and divide educational communities for their own purposes.

In both our local and the national controversies, it is clear that external forces with money and substantial media presence benefit from intractable conflict—perhaps they want to reduce social trust, win elections or simply generate clicks on their content. These folks peddle fear and outrage to those who genuinely care about our communities by presenting the seductive narrative that it’s “us against them.” Their strategies are intellectually unserious, violate norms of critical thinking, and pose an existential threat to the flourishing of educational communities. But building trust in ways that I’ve outlined reduce the likelihood that frustrated members of our communities will take the bait of conflict purveyors. If folks feel heard, and develop skills for genuine dialogue, their identities as valued members of the community can hopefully move them to turn their energy for engagement toward strengthening our campus communities.

The headwinds against higher education right now are strong, and the crisis of trust is real at the national level and on my own campus. However, there’s no alternative to the hard work of rebuilding trust, one conversation and one class period at a time.

Megan Halteman Zwart is associate professor of philosophy and director of the Dialogue Project at Saint Mary’s College (Notre Dame, Indiana).

Next Story

More from Career Advice