Main content start
In the Press

Teaching democracy and disagreement

Why a healthy democracy needs a dose of constructive disagreement

Could embracing our differences be an antidote to polarization? In a new spring quarter course, scholars with opposing viewpoints will discuss divisive issues in all their nuance and complexity.

In these polarizing times, how can a diverse, democratic society channel disagreement in productive ways?

This is a question the deans of the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S) and Stanford Law School (SLS) will pose to students taking the spring quarter course they are co-teaching, PHIL 3: Democracy and Disagreement.

When registration for spring quarter opens on March 6, students will be able to sign up for the 1‑credit course that will see Stanford scholars and others disagree with one another on some of the most pressing issues facing society and college campuses today, such as free speech, meritocracy, gun regulation, and immigration.

Teaching the course will be Debra Satz, the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of H&S, and Paul Brest, interim dean and professor emeritus at SLS.

As Satz and Brest note, disagreement – when grounded in a respectful exchange of ideas, experiences, and viewpoints – is an essential part of living in a diverse world.

“In a pluralistic society, people are going to have disagreements about issues of policy based on their own backgrounds and their own interests – that’s simply the nature of pluralism,” said Brest. “The goal of democracy is to manage disagreements in a way that, ideally, improves the welfare of the overall society while respecting people’s differences.”

Stanford Provost Jenny Martinez sees this course as one of many opportunities at Stanford for students to learn with experts about some of the most urgent issues of today and prepare themselves as citizens in a democracy.

“One of the skills of citizenship is engaging in civil discourse,” Martinez said.

But as Martinez notes, people sometimes are confused and think civil discourse is primarily about being courteous or polite. Its etymology partly comes from the Latin word for citizen and is about being a member and active participant within a political community.

“The skills of civil discourse are the skills of having conversations in a democracy, of exercising your role as a citizen to engage on the issues of today with people you may or may not agree with,” Martinez added. “It requires rigorous substantive engagement, and regard for others’ right to participate in the conversation as well.”

A sample of the syllabus

For a democracy to function, it requires people of all backgrounds to come together to meaningfully discuss concerns and, in time, come to a set of shared or overlapping values.

In the course, invited scholars and experts with dissenting viewpoints will model respectful disagreement on a range of thought-provoking topics such as:

  • Whether or not meritocracy is a good thing
  • The ethics of selling organs
  • How much should guns be regulated
  • The role of legacy admissions or the SAT
  • Immigration policy

Students will see how scholars, even when presented with the same set of facts and evidence, can arrive at very different conclusions.

Disagreement can be a space that allows sharply different voices to be heard, but only when there are established processes and procedures in place to handle conflict when it arises and norms of openness, humility, and mutual respect, Satz said.

“There’s been an erosion of trust in the procedures and norms needed for a functioning democracy,” said Satz, who hopes that the course will deepen students’ appreciation of why these are both important.

“The idea is to take issues that are polarizing and deal with them in an intellectually rigorous way,” Brest said.

More informed decision-making

Throughout the course, students will also learn how disagreement can help them be curious – about each other, but also about themselves and their own beliefs and values.

“Confronting an opposing opinion forces you to think, ‘OK, why don’t I agree? Am I missing something? Is there a different way of framing this?’” said Satz.

The course will also show how disagreement can help each of us to understand other people – be it fellow citizens, colleagues, classmates, friends, and family – a little better, too.

“Many disagreements are going to persist and we have to live together,” Satz said. “As a citizen, as a member of a fractured globe, and as a member of an intimate community, you’re sometimes going to have very deep disagreements with people. How you navigate those differences are important skills to learn.”

Satz, who is a philosopher, points out that in philosophy, there is an entire process – the Socratic method – dedicated to raising objections and uncovering assumptions through questioning. From that process of disagreement, new insights and realizations can emerge.

For Brest, disagreement – as an exercise in evidence-based, critical discussion – is a way to arrive at the truth.

“Stanford is committed to the search for truth,” Brest said, emphasizing that this commitment does not mean there is an absolute truth at any given moment, nor is there a singular truth that the university may endorse.

Rather, it signifies a commitment to evidence-based research, scholarship, and teaching – which is what academic life is all about at the university.

Referencing the famous quote by politician and diplomat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Brest added: “‘You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.’ The university is committed to supporting scholars and students who are trying to find out what the facts are.”

Classes will be held on Tuesdays from 3 to 4:50 p.m. at Cemex Auditorium from April 1 through June 4.  
Classes will be recorded that will be available for the Stanford community to view.  
Brest is also a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business and director of the Stanford Law and Policy Lab at SLS.  
Satz is also the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor in Ethics in Society and a professor, by courtesy, in the Department of Political Science in H&S.