"The hallmark of wisdom, after all, is the understanding that all you believe may be wrong."
This unattributed quote captures the essence of learning, growth and understanding from which wisdom arises. It also implies the need for humility, and civility, along the way.
Humility allows us to question our views, and civility makes us open to other answers.
Yet we have seen the deterioration of both humility and civility not just in our politics, but in our everyday lives.
Differences of opinion, religion or political preference no longer simply are part of what makes each of us unique and interesting. They instead are labels that serve as proxies we use to decide if others are good or bad, kind or heartless, dependent or deplorable.
Family members, friends and neighbors separate themselves based on these proxies rather than on relationships rooted in dialog and understanding of our common humanity. Social media has no doubt exacerbated this trend by allowing – even encouraging – us to live in social and information bubbles from which we can tweet, post, email or text our immediate thoughts with a few taps of our fingers but without the leavening physical presence of another person or time for reflection before sharing those views with the world.
We can do better.
The New Albany community and the Jefferson Series provide ideal environments for this improvement. Our community is more than just the sum of its people, homes, businesses and infrastructure, and the Jefferson Series is a shining example of our commitment to learning.
With this solid footing, the Barbara W. and Philip R. Derrow Family Foundation has established the New Albany Center for Civil Discourse and Debate.
Our family's goal for the center is to reignite the spirit of civil discourse by creating opportunities for community members to listen to and participate in debates about issues important to them.
As with all worthwhile endeavors, doing better in this regard requires a conscious choice to do so, a commitment to learning – or relearning – the skills required, and the determination to practice and apply those skills in all of our interactions with others, especially those with whom we are likely to disagree.
Part of the center's work will include opportunities for speech and debate teams at New Albany Middle School and New Albany High School.
We also are working with the New Albany-Plain Local School District to incorporate the principles and skills of civil discourse, argument and debate into existing curricula and programming so students will have the tools they need to more fully engage in civil discourse and debate after graduation. In that regard, the center's work dovetails well with the school district's ongoing R Factor, E+R=O program that teaches students, faculty and families skills to help them recognize their ability to influence outcomes in their interactions with others by thoughtful responses to events.
On May 1, selected high school students from several central Ohio school districts, including New Albany, will have the opportunity to preview the inaugural evening program for the center. The programs will focus on free speech because free and open dialog is the cornerstone of civil discourse and debate.
Students and guests attending the Jefferson Series events with Noah Feldman and Jeffrey Toobin on May 1 will explore opposing views on whether the answer to offensive speech is, in the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, "more speech, not enforced silence."
Do speech codes on college campuses foster or impede learning? Do they allow listeners to decide whether some views are so inherently offensive they create an environment that makes learning impossible? Or do they grant a small group of listeners a "hecklers veto" that deprives many others of the opportunity to challenge their own thinking?
The opening quote makes clear the answer to this and other similar questions is not absolute. It is a choice.
Phil Derrow is vice president of the New Albany-Plain Local school board.