Justice Education

Good Work
January 2024

Virtuous Democratic Dialogue

Wes Siscoe

It all started when Trump was elected president. 

It was Megan Zwart’s first class period after the 2016 election, and emotions were running high. Rather than cover the typical material for that day, her ethics class turned into an impromptu political discussion. And because her students were from many different ideological backgrounds, the conversation wasn’t just commiserating or celebrating. Instead, many different perspectives were represented, and the dialogue was civil, tolerant, and open-minded. Surprisingly, that conversation left her students wanting more. 

“One of my students said that they wished there was a whole course that could teach them how to have these kinds of conversations,” Zwart said. “They could do it in this particular class, so why couldn’t they have such great discussions with family and friends?”

So Zwart, philosophy professor at Saint Mary’s college in Notre Dame, Indiana, did just that. With a grant from Campus Compact, Zwart kicked off the Dialogue and Civil Discourse class in 2017. The class asked students to consider controversial issues like abortion rights, cancel culture, and racial justice while at the same time emphasizing the virtues of attention, curiosity, empathy and intellectual humility.

“My background really prepared me for a class like this,” Zwart said. “I’ve taught a lot of virtue ethics, but I have also studied philosophical hermeneutics, which emphasizes an understanding of how we see the world and considering our pre-reflective assumptions. And in the course’s emphasis both on the virtues and on understanding where other people are coming from, you really have a fusion of these two approaches.”

What began as just a class has started to catch on in a much bigger way. The Dialogue Project now encompasses a number of initiatives at Saint Mary’s. Over the years, dialogue and civil discourse material has been integrated into first-year courses, a peer dialogue facilitator program, and training for student leaders on campus. Along with that, Zwart has also started a Dialogue and Democracy summer institute, an week-long immersive experience for high school girls that want to learn the basics of constructive dialogue.

Zwart has also had many opportunities  to share her approach with others working in higher education, authoring several pieces on how the virtues play a role in constructive democratic dialogue. In her view, to make democracy work we don’t need the philosopher kings of Plato, but rather some ordinary “philosopher folks”. These philosopher folks are equipped with the virtues to build community and have challenging conversations, strengthening our democracy in the process.

Moving forward, Zwart plans to continue to promote what she sees as central to thriving institutions of higher education. With the continued relevance of issues of free speech in academia, the Dialogue Project stands out as an exemplar, showing how it is possible to build an intellectually diverse college or university alongside a tight-knit community.

“Higher education has much work to do finding a balance between building inclusive, supportive communities in which students can flourish, and creating space for students to encounter new ideas and engage productively across differences, even when this causes some discomfort,” she said. “My own sense is that helping campus community members grow in virtues for good dialogue is the most promising way to strike this balance, as a community that grows together in the virtues for good dialogue will be a community that prioritizes trust-building – a community in which folks will feel comfortable sharing their experiences, encountering new ideas, and reflecting on the impact of their actions on the community.”