Higher Education Exchange 2017: Deliberation as Public Judgment

The 2017 issue of the Higher Education Exchange (HEX) takes on the divisive political moment we find ourselves in and argues that civic work that tries to be apolitical, or stays within the comfort zone of higher education, will not help us to bridge the divides that threaten our democracy

What makes this moment so critical? Polarization is now more intractable than it has ever been before. While elected officials have always had their disagreements, research has confirmed partisanship in Washington has grown to new levels. Media polarization is also on the rise. Not only are we confronted with ongoing socioeconomic and geographical divides, but also social media further enables segmentation into bubbles of like-minded groups. While information has never been more accessible, the citizenry cannot even agree on what constitutes factual information, much less how to interpret its implications.

In addition to the usual gridlock, the discourse of “winners” and “losers” raises the stakes of politics. Each side fears that the other seeks power to impose its will, further increasing the sense of tension and mistrust. As politics comes to be seen exclusively as a competition for power, the outcomes have less claim to be regarded as the expression of a deliberative process that represents the common good.

As a public institution, higher education would seem to be ideally placed to build bridges across these political divides. However, higher education has construed its neutrality narrowly, attempting to steer clear of politics rather than actively bridge political divides. At least since the advent of the modern research university, higher education has focused largely on the production and transmission of expert knowledge, conceiving its democratic role as informing the public. Higher education institutions are thus built around an epistemology that separates “facts” from “values” and, understandably, the historical focus has been on the former rather than the latter. However, if our current dysfunctions have more to do with political divisions than informational deficits, the question becomes: what more expansive civic role is higher education capable of playing?

In recent years, higher education has begun to talk more actively about its civic role. As part of this civic renewal, the word deliberation has enjoyed a resurgence, and higher education has played a key role in nurturing a field of practice across professional domains now ostensibly devoted to deliberative democracy. But what deliberation means may be more varied and obscure than ever. Depending on their purposes and contexts, practices referred to under the rubric of deliberation may have various and even contradictory effects. Deliberation is used for strikingly different purposes, including civic education, conflict resolution, input into government policy and administration, and social justice, and sponsoring organizations make a variety of design choices to suit their purposes. Despite such differences, deliberation is also used to describe the varied practices and examples taking place.

As a research foundation committed to a particular understanding of deliberation, Kettering’s challenge is to be clear about what we mean when we use the term. This volume of HEX attempts to distill Kettering’s understanding of deliberation.

At least two important themes define Kettering’s approach. First, this approach to deliberation is political. It aims to address dysfunctions of our political system, particularly the polarization of our public discourse and resulting loss of confidence in institutions.

Second, at the center of our approach to deliberation is the exercise of the human faculty of judgment. That is, rather than technical or instrumental problems, we seek to apply deliberation primarily to the complex value questions that most divide our country. Because such questions cannot be answered objectively, no amount of technical knowledge can resolve them. While judgment lacks the certainty of scientific knowledge as well as the romantic appeal of a unanimous consensus, we think it is precisely the virtue that is needed to address the communicative dysfunctions of our current political climate.

As our public discourse becomes increasingly adversarial, higher education and other expert professions may be tempted to double down on “informing” the public with expert knowledge. Kettering’s research suggests that we are in need of something different, an ethos—a set of skills, norms, and habits for civic discourse. While higher education is in a position to help bridge our differences, its overwhelming tendency has been to prioritize technical knowledge at the expense of civic ethos. Proponents of deliberation may unwittingly compound the problem by confusing the two. For those who wish to bridge our divides, we hope this collection will help them return their focus to the human faculty of judgment and recover the political roots of deliberation.

We hope this edition of HEX sparks a lively conversation on these themes.

Download HEX 2017.