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Beyond Division: The Mount’s Discourse Society

College of Liberal Arts Staff

Juniors Lauren Dykes and Sydney Verdecchia are committed to advancing civilized debate at the Mount. Together they lead the Discourse Society, a student-led, nonpartisan organization that meets once a week to listen, debate, and discuss important issues affecting our campus and nation.

discourse-in-text.jpgThe club’s president, Dykes, a political science and sociology major, became involved because she has “always been interested in politics, but noticed that all the debate surrounding the 2016 election seemed to spark more polarization.” Her friend, Verdecchia, a Spanish and human services major and the organization’s vice president, admits that before she came to the Mount she “wasn’t into politics.”   “I didn’t have a lot of knowledge,” she said, “but when I was a freshman I decided I should try to listen and learn more.”  Both joined a group founded in 2017 by political science and history major Philip Dudeck, C’19.

The Society’s faculty advisor, Political Science Professor Michael Towle, Ph.D., said the organization was originally called the Politics Club. He believes the group didn’t catch on in part because students can be reluctant to talk about anything political. “We have very polite students, who almost self-censor when sharing their opinions,” he explained. Towle decided that the Discourse Society’s more informal approach would work better than the Politics Club and would allow the group to evolve. “I’ve had very little to do with it really,” he added. “Early on, I went to some meetings and noticed that students I had in class were directing their comments to me rather than to each other so I towle.mike-425.425.jpgstopped going.”  His role now is advising the officers, publicizing events across campus, and providing pizza from time to time. Other faculty members have expressed a desire to join the group, but Towle hasn’t invited his colleagues so far because the current model is working so well.

The Society meets once a week and decides by majority vote which issues they will discuss. Towle then informs the entire student body about the next topic to make sure all interested students can attend. Club members have discussed a wide range of issues such as gun legislation, the DACA program, sexual assault, the new voting bill in Georgia, the death penalty, rules governing transgender athletes, policies surrounding COVID-19 vaccines, and the Derek Chauvin trial. Students also debate campus issues like academic freedom, tenure for professors, racism on campus, rules for returning to the Mount under the conditions of COVID-19, and so on. When topics the Society discusses intersect with Church teaching, club officers have invited members of the Center for Campus Ministry to share their views.  The Society welcomes students from all majors and enforces rules to make sure conversation remains civil. For example, when the group met in a classroom, those speaking were required to hold a “talking stick” (an eraser in this case) to make sure only one person speaks at a time. This year the group met by Zoom only, and so the officers adapted to the new circumstances by using “raise hand” and “mute” buttons to accomplish the same goal.

Towle observed that the nation has become so divided that issues that would not have been controversial at other times, such as electric vehicles, vaccines and other disease-preventing measures, have become “bizarrely political.” For example, saying “climate change” rather than “global warning” can result in a heated exchange. Verdecchia believes an inflection point occurred during what she called the “unorthodox election” of 2016. “On the news we now see how much more we disagree with each other,” she said. Dykes asserts that social media has played a role. “You’re always connected in today’s world, and we can choose what we want to see on social media,” she said, “but in the real world not everyone agrees with you. Politicians don’t listen to each other, and we learn by observing them.” Towle worried that these divisions hindered dialogue. “I was concerned that college students were not having conversations about public affairs,” he said. “When they listen to those they disagree with, they have a better basis for forming and adjusting their own opinions. This is really important for civic development.”

Dykes and Verdecchia are leading Mount students beyond today’s divisions by stressing the skill of listening. “There’s a real need to understand each other,” Dykes, reflected, “to talk to each other as adults, which also prepares you to be in the workforce. We don’t care where you are on the political spectrum. We want to hear what you think—not judge you about your beliefs.”  She admits that some of the things said during meetings “make us uncomfortable,” but she finds “it’s okay to disagree; we can leave the room and still be friends.”  Verdecchia agreed: “We need to see more of that in our country,” she said.

The format is working because the Society, now in its fourth year, is thriving even during a pandemic. Towle said he is “proud that [Dykes and Verdecchia] been able to keep it going,” under such difficult circumstances. It’s hard to argue with that.

College of Liberal Arts Staff