‘A faith restoring example’

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I don’t sleep much after chairing a Braver Angels college debate. There’s a windrush of energy released from somewhere deep… a result of the guided collision of affirmative and negative forces that students carry into the room. It defies gravity and buoys me up. (Which explains why I started writing this message at 4 a.m. in my hotel room in Cincinnati after a debate at Xavier University!)

Launched in 2018, our College Debates and Discourse Program is an alliance between Braver Angels, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), and BridgeUSA — three organizations that believe in the power of free expression and respectful exchange of ideas on America’s college campuses. By the end of this spring semester, our team will have staged nearly 100 campus and classroom debates engaging several thousand students across the nation.

The students who participate in our debates — and especially those who co-organize them with us — are inspiring to be around. It’s not a stretch to envision them as future leaders, public servants, and influencers in the social and political landscape. When they stand up to speak, they show courage, original thinking, deep listening, and compassion for each other. What’s particularly riveting is seeing them drive the same kind of dialogue that I think must have sparked the creation of American democracy.

At the Xavier debate, 40 students wrestled with the topic, “Should America send troops to protect democracies in peril?” The eloquence and wide scope of their thought moved me close to tears — probably because, troops and wars aside, this is one clear way we protect our own democracy in peril.

Our college debates program has gained momentum as we refine our ground game with each school. A key enabler is the new Curricular Toolkit we provide for faculty who want to build classroom debates into their lesson plans. We also partner with students themselves, giving them ownership of what they want their Braver Angels campus debate to be. With our help, they choose their own debate resolutions, recruit opening speakers, publicize the debates… and all of this integrates seamlessly into their busy schedules — even in the midst of midterm exams and college assignments.

The payoff is gratifying. Consider these impacts:

– Following their debate at Denison University in Ohio, students agreed that something profound took place and that the experience had changed them. “I’m asking myself how I can carry this forward to other students,” one student said, “and even more, I’m wondering how we can expand and bring it to a multiplicity of campuses.”

– Professors at Sul Ross State University in Texas and the University of Alabama reported that their students said that they “felt lighter” after their classroom debates — and asked how soon we could come back to campus to conduct more.

– After a debate on April 6 at Occidental College chaired by my colleague and co-director, April Kornfield, Professor Jacob Mackey messaged us: “This was a faith-restoring example of students dialoguing with each other with intellectual integrity and passion, yet also with mutual respect and even mutual love.”

– That same night, after I chaired a debate at Duke University, Professor Deondra Rose wrote, “It was truly inspiring to see Duke students engage in such a rich conversation about speech on college campuses, cancel culture, and related issues. We’re looking forward to continuing our collaboration with Braver Angels and can’t thank you enough for the work that you do.”

How long will these effects on students last, and what might be their long-term impact? I’m glad that Professor Lindsay Hoffman at the University of Delaware has begun working with us to shape a research and evaluation approach that will help us refine best practices and share findings with the higher education community. She’s even exploring how to define and measure an intriguing trait she calls — in all seriousness — “Braver Angel-ness.”

The road ahead holds great promise for those of us seeking to cascade “Braver Angel-ness” across America. I’m gratified to watch our college program grow and discover new synergy with BA’s national and regional initiatives. We’re now looking into how we might stage college-based debates that welcome participation from locals in the surrounding community. One might even come to a campus near you.

Our team is so grateful for your support and encouragement. If you have connections to local faculty or students who are interested in bringing Braver Angels debates to their classrooms and campuses, please get in touch with me. Thank you for building this movement with us, and we hope to welcome your voice at one of our debates — whether in person or virtual — soon.
— Doug Sprei, Co-Director, College Debates and Discourse

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