Conversation is an act of hope.
That's what Upper School History Teacher Karen Jersild told her classes as she and her students drilled down to the basics of civil discourse. To do that, she created what she calls an "Enlightenment project" complete with a modern-day salon.
In 2017, Jersild was struck by how dramatically public discourse had broken down and by how often polarization dominated the media. Not wanting her students to feel silenced by the discord, she resolved to help them discuss the difficult topics in today's society.
Jersild's first goal was for her students to be able to constructively stand up for what they believe in, including acknowledging opposing viewpoints and backing up their own assertions with strong evidence. She also wanted them to see that history is not locked in time or place — that history in 1700s France, for example, connects to their lives and can help them understand the world today.
"As a history teacher, I have a responsibility to help students understand the world and learn skills to participate in it, both within and beyond our borders," Jersild said.
As part of the project, students researched and wrote a paper in which they took a stance on a current issue. As the philosophes did during the Enlightenment, students not only identified an issue but also argued for change to address it.
After they completed their papers, Jersild and the students held a two-day, modern-day salon. The goal here: civil discourse. Students shared their research, offered their views, raised questions, and discovered some of the common threads of changes people want in society today.
Jersild said she's thrilled to see the value students found in both learning from research and learning from each other.
"And, of course," she added, "I'm excited that they recognized how history can help us understand the world today."
One student, Judith, called the salon an eye-opening experience because it showed how so many current topics are related to one another. "Our incorporation of civil discourse in the conversation helped people feel comfortable enough to express their true thoughts and opinions," she said.
Another student, David, called the experience positive and enlightening. "During the salon, you're able to hear the ideas and perspectives of classmates on current issues that are seldom heard in a classroom setting," he said.
Karen Jersild with her Modern European History Honors Class.