U Florida Students Practice Civil Debate

Ashley Thorne

Inside Higher Ed reports that the University of Florida is conducting an experiment worthy of a marketplace of ideas. With a $3 million grant from the Knight Foundation, the University recently put up a “Civil Debate Wall”: five wall-mounted touch screens with questions about controversial topics, such as “Is wealth distributed fairly in the United States?” Student passers-by have the opportunity to respond in short opinion statements. A camera overhead snaps a headshot, and the person’s response, picture, and first name go up on a screen.

It seems like a good idea for getting students accustomed to an attitude of respectful debate on a college campus. Ann Henderson, the university staff member who established the wall, told Inside Higher Ed she hopes it will help students learn to take a stand on hot-button issues but to do it with courtesy:

“We’re trying to say you can disagree with somebody, you can do it civilly, you can do it with respect,” she said.

That’s especially important, she said, at a time when political issues are polarizing and debate can be bitter. “At the end of the day, it’s not just about being polite,” Henderson said, “it’s about how to function in a democracy when you believe that and I believe this.” 

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