Intense partisan rancor emanates far beyond national forums today, adding a confrontational edge to even everyday conversations of friends and neighbors. Faced with the cacophony of cable news, the social media echo chamber and the rising acceptance of public putdowns, Americans can’t help but wonder: Is civility dead?

Not at the University of Virginia.

“In keeping with longstanding traditions, students in the early 1950s, while traversing the walkways on the Grounds to and from Old Clark Hall, regularly greeted passersby with a brief ‘hello’ or a friendly wave of the hand. If you were lucky, President Colgate Darden in his daily walks, might stop you for a brief chat on a bench. In many ways, there was an air of civility in our memorable life in Charlottesville,” said former U.S. Sen. John Warner, a 1953 UVA Law graduate.

As Warner recalls, there’s long been a general atmosphere of civility on the grounds, but the modern University is doing more than just offering a respite of civility. Today, UVA employs a combined set of educational initiatives to spread the practice of civil political discourse across the commonwealth and the nation as a whole.

Starting Early

One of the biggest barriers to spreading civility is the fear of discussing difficult topics. When the adults around them aren’t willing to discuss controversial topics at all, children may be limited to the often-acerbic examples of debate they see in the media.

“We feel like people don’t talk about things at the dinner table anymore, and maybe that’s because they don’t know how. Maybe they need help,” Meg Heubeck said.

Heubeck is the director of instruction for the Youth Leadership Initiative, the signature civics education program of the UVA Center for Politics, founded in 1998 by UVA Professor Larry J. Sabato. She’s also the creator of what has become the initiative’s most popular grade school lesson plan, “Talking Turkey: Taking the ‘Dis’ Out of Civil Discourse.’”

Adults and children doing activities outdoors

Meg Heubeck, the director of instruction for the Youth Leadership Initiative and Ken Stroupe, the associate director of the Center for Politics, work with local children during one of the center’s summer civics education programs. (Photo courtesy of University Advancement)

It’s one of hundreds of free civics education tools that the center provides to more than 95,000 K-12 teachers nationwide. Like many of the Center for Politics’ other programs, including Emmy Award-winning political documentaries, this lesson plan goes beyond the confines of the classroom, offering techniques for students, teachers and parents to tackle difficult topics through productive dialogue and active listening. It provides pathways for all participants to calmly discuss subjects that can become heated, like immigration or economic policy.

While the initiative has been spreading the hallmarks of civility to children across the country for nearly 20 years, Heubeck witnessed a major rise in lesson demand from teachers in the wake of the vitriolic 2016 presidential election.

“My big push right now is to help students break down barriers with one another because if we start with students, it’ll work.”
- Meg Heubeck,
Center for Politics

“Teachers were crying out for this. They realized that they need to have these difficult conversations because what’s happening when we’re not having the conversations are all these ugly, really disturbing behaviors between students,” she said. “The thing is, you have to be trained, you have to work on it and you have to have some framework set up by which the conversations are safe and fair.”

“Talking Turkey” does just that. It starts with a series of downloadable questions, talking points and research links designed to teach children and adults the art of civil political discourse. Among the many pointers are guidelines for how to ask and answer questions, reminders to treat others’ responses the way you would want yours treated and tips on how to ensure that everyone is given an equal opportunity to speak.

“My big push right now is to help students break down barriers with one another because if we start with students, it’ll work,” Heubeck said. “The idea is that it brings in parents, teachers and students, so that everyone’s on the same page. It seeks to empower not only the students, but the parents, too. That’s how we get people talking using those rules.”

Heubeck has heard from hundreds of teachers who’ve used the program successfully and witnessed its effects firsthand with grade-school children in Central Virginia. With the help of the Youth Leadership Initiative, young students all over the country are mastering skills that elude many adults and learning to have productive conversations on major political issues.

Welcoming Different Voices

It’s a common charge that when students transition to higher education they risk entering an ideological bubble shaped by the prevailing views of the campus around them. UVA’s Gerald Warburg makes a point of recognizing the truth in this allegation with his students and bursting the confines of that bubble.

Warburg, a professor of practice at the University’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, teaches a wildly popular course every semester, “Public Policy Challenges of the 21st Century.” The course is open to all undergraduates and has swelled in recent years to more than 200 students to accommodate demand – much of it driven by Warburg’s ability to secure prominent speakers from all sides of the political spectrum.

“There’s a progressive consensus on many university campuses in the United States and the University of Virginia is no different – although we often tease that our students in general are flaming moderates,” he said. “I think it’s extremely important for us to listen to other political points of view, and I don’t believe that the cable news and social media dialogues that we’re exposed to most are doing that.”

Portrait of Gerald Warburg

Gerald Warburg is a professor of practice at the University’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. (Photo courtesy of the Batten School)

Students in Warburg’s course have heard from leading political voices like Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia; former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor; Mike Needham, CEO of the conservative Heritage Foundation; and the most senior member of Virginia’s congressional delegation, Democratic U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott.

Students spend class sessions between speakers reading up on the different issues they’ll be addressing – a range of topics from cyber security, to climate change, criminal justice reform and more. Then after each speaker addresses them, Warburg arranges for a dialogue with students, both through larger question-and-answer sessions and smaller meetings outside the classroom. For each setting, Warburg stresses the need to actively listen to the speakers’ responses as well as ask probing questions.

“We have to create a forum where different points of view can be heard, where the legitimacy of different points of view isn’t called into question and where the motives of different points of view are not immediately leapt at,” Warburg said. “People need to really listen and ask, ‘What is this person concerned about? How am I concerned about that, too? What are points in common?’”

He encourages his students to do that in class, and spent the tumultuous months before and after the 2016 elections working with the Batten School to find new ways to foster that kind of open dialogue in the broader community as well.

“We have to create a forum where different points of view can be heard, where the legitimacy of different points of view isn’t called into question and where the motives of different points of view are not immediately leapt at.”
- Gerald Warburg,
Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy

In March, that led to the Batten School’s somewhat controversial decision to host a faculty-moderated civic forum for U.S. Rep. Tom Garrett of Virginia’s 5th District, which includes much of Charlottesville. Chaotic forums around the country preceded the event on Grounds; and on the day of the meeting, protesters from both the left and right chanted outside the school.

Inside, however, a civil exchange of ideas was underway. The entire event wasn’t without its hiccups – there were some shouted interruptions and clear areas of disagreement – but afterward, Warburg heard from numerous attendees who were appreciative of the frank and civil discussion.

“Even people who disagreed with our hosting that event for Mr. Garrett thanked us for doing it afterward,” Warburg said. “We feel more determined than ever that that was the right thing to do and I think you’ll see the Batten School do more of that in the future because it is genuinely part of our civic responsibility. We feel it’s our duty to the taxpayers who pay our salaries.”

Preparing Future Leaders

For those who are called to take their civic duty a step further, the University offers a program that teaches them to use productive debate and compromise as public officials.

The Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership works with those who aspire to public office, placing people of different ideological backgrounds in situations where they must work together to find solutions.

Portrait of Tom Walls

Tom Walls is the executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Their flagship initiative, the 10-month Political Leaders Program, works with Virginia residents interested in becoming more active in public service. Currently, nearly 30 Sorensen alumni serve in the Virginia General Assembly, and prominent alumni also include current Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam – now the Democratic nominee for governor – and former U.S. Reps. Scott Rigell and Robert Hurt.

“At Sorensen we have an unofficial motto of ‘Trust, civility and respect.’”
- Tom Walls,
Sorensen Institute

“At Sorensen we have an unofficial motto of ‘Trust, civility and respect,” Tom Walls, the institute’s executive director, said. “If you debate any issues while trying to live up to those three things, you’ll have a healthy debate. You’ll have a debate where people are treating each other with respect, are behaving ethically and are telling the truth. Really, that’s the whole formula.”

Sorensen helps foster this kind of debate by taking its students to different parts of the commonwealth for its weekend training sessions. While working together in small groups to tackle policy problems, the participants are also exposed to the diverse challenges that face different regions of the state. Over time, they get to know each other well and often form lasting, collaborative friendships with their fellow alumni.

“It’s much harder to demonize someone that you know. I think one of the nice things about Sorensen is that you spend the weekend with classmates and you get to know people on a more personal level,” said Sorensen alumnus and current state Del. Chris Peace. “Then, in exercises when you have to negotiate a budget or have to develop a policy position, it’s much harder to take it to the next level in terms of your rhetoric and animosity, and I think you actually get more done.”

Two politicians holding babies.

Friends and colleagues state Del. Chris Peace and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan pose with their respective sons Henry (left) and Jack. (Photo courtesy of Chris Peace)

For some like Peace, a Republican, and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat, the bonds of Sorensen help foster important bipartisan working relationships down the road. While McClellan and Peace took the Sorensen course at different times, they knew each other through the program’s network and both took away collaborative skills that have helped them work together in the state legislature. They frequently pen joint pieces for local media and have co-sponsored legislation on education reform, the state’s response to sexual assault, and more.

“I think that what I learned from Sorensen is that if you talk to Republicans at a high level, you’ll find that you both have the same goals. You just have different ideas about how to get there,” said McClellan. “You may have very different views of the roles of government, but everybody wants their child to have a good education, to grow up in a safe neighborhood and for their kids to have an opportunity to do better than they did. So we start with that and ask, ‘How do we get there?’”

“If you can understand why they believe what they believe – rather than attacking them for what they believe – that’s where you can find common ground.”
- Jennifer McClellan,
Virginia State Senator

McClellan’s question is the same one that is constantly being asked at the University. How do we get there for our youngest citizens? How do we get there when training a new generation of civic-minded college students? How do we get there for our nation’s emerging political leaders?

As McClellan and Peace know, the steps are incremental and the compromises aren’t always perfect, but maintaining an meaningful, civil dialogue can open new doors to progress.

“You have to listen and you have to respect,” McClellan said. “Even if someone disagrees with you, their opinion is just as valuable as yours. If you can understand why they believe what they believe – rather than attacking them for what they believe – that’s where you can find common ground.”

Media Contact

Katie McNally

University News Associate Office of University Communications