September/October 2023Vol. XXXVI No. 1

Civil Discourse in the Classroom and Beyond

Alex Byrne, Brad Skow

In its 2024 College Free Speech Rankings, FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) ranked MIT 136th. While we can congratulate ourselves on beating Harvard (which came dead last at #248), there is undeniably room for improvement.

Academic disciplines in the sciences and humanities employ different methodologies and draw on different evidence, but all aim for, and often arrive at, knowledge. This process works best when universities provide space for the open exchange of ideas. A cursory glance at history shows many cases where disfavored ideas have turned out to be true (well-known is Galileo’s heresy conviction for advocating heliocentrism); discouraging the investigation and debate of any idea, therefore, may impede the search for knowledge. Even false ideas are worth hearing and discussing, because a reasoned encounter between them and the truth can strengthen our conviction in the latter.

If a university should allow its faculty to pursue and debate ideas as they see fit, without interference, it should also do more: teach its students how to have productive good-faith conversations with others with whom they disagree. Having this ability is part of being a good citizen in a democracy.

To the end of bringing MIT closer to this ideal, we have started a two-year project called Civil Discourse in the Classroom and Beyond, which will launch this fall, organized with Anne McCants (History, Concourse Director), and Linda Rabieh (Concourse). Generously funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the project has two core components: a speaker series open to the MIT community, and seminars in Concourse where students discuss freedom of expression and develop skills for successfully engaging in civil discourse.

For the speaker series this fall, we have two events. On October 24, Steven Koonin, former Caltech provost and author of Unsettled, and MIT’s Kerry Emanuel (EAPS), will discuss “Climate Change: ‘Existential Threat’ or ‘Bump in the Road’?” And on November 9, Mary Harrington, author of Feminism Against Progress, and Anne McCants (History), will discuss “Has Feminism Made Progress?”. The talks are 7:00-8:30 in 2-190, with a reception to follow.

In the spring, on February 26, Vinay Prasad, author of Malignant, will be discussing Covid policies with Peko Hosoi (MECHE). Our last speaker for the year, on April 8, is Freddie deBoer, author of How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, details TBA. The speaker series will be integrated with the political scientist Yascha Mounk’s podcast, The Good Fight.

In addition to bringing in interesting and provocative speakers we thought it important to demonstrate to students that MIT faculty are willing to roll up their sleeves and engage with perspectives not often heard on our campus. We are delighted that Professors Emanuel, McCants, and Hosoi agreed to participate, and we are looking forward to what promises to be some intellectually stimulating evenings. As bringing the MIT community into dialogue with these ideas is part of the aim, ample time will be set aside for questions from those in attendance. Everyone is welcome, so please spread the word.

Concourse is one of MIT’s first-year learning communities, and provides an ideal test bed for our Civil Discourse project. The entire class of 40 students will attend our speaker series as part of their advising seminar participation.

Concourse is also devoting three of its regular Friday seminars this term to the project. In the first, the students will read excerpts from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, the MIT statement on free expression and academic freedom, and information about the Dorian Abbot episode at MIT. Students will discuss the Abbot affair in light of arguments that Mill gives for free speech.

The other two seminars will be on the Fridays after the events with Koonin and Harrington, in which the students will debate the topic of that week. Concourse will be using the debate format developed by Braver Angels, which helps students develop the skills to discuss polarized issues productively and with civility. Concourse has three upper-class “debate fellows,” who will help plan and conduct the debates to ensure that many different viewpoints are expressed.

In the spring, the plan is to open the Concourse debates to the wider MIT community. Our project dovetails nicely with the Concourse vision of a liberal education where opposing ideas are heard and argued over, in service of gaining a more nuanced common understanding of the world and humanity’s place within it.

Although the Civil Discourse project is focused on students, we have not ignored the faculty entirely. We are organizing a seminar on free expression on the afternoon of March 6, with Yascha Mounk and other guests. All faculty are welcome.

The Concourse experiment will help us determine what works and what doesn’t, and our longer-term ambition is to try to reach all MIT first-year students. Any feedback or suggestions (especially about publicizing the speaker series) from our faculty colleagues will be much appreciated. Our project has a website,, where you can find the latest information about all our events.