A Harvard professor's strategy for teaching students to respectfully disagree

Freedom of speech has been one of the contentious issues driving the recent rise of student activism, which is expected to continue this fall.

In a 2016 survey, students agreed with the broad statement that it's important for schools to foster an "open learning environment," but there was less consensus on which kinds of speech are appropriate.

But instructors can also take steps in the classroom to create an environment where students can disagree safely and respectfully, according to Gregory Mankiw, a professor at Harvard University. Mankiw shares that he works hard to foster this kind of culture in one of his seminars for first-year students.  

Exposing students to diversity doesn't happen by accident

The course covers texts that present a variety of economic policy arguments; usually some students agree with the author and others do not, Mankiw writes. What's important is that students discuss how they think about the text and hear other perspectives as well.

To get these diverse perspectives, Mankiw shares that he tries to select a diverse group of students from among the large number that express interest in taking the course. For example, he selects an equal number of men and women and asks prospective students about their political leanings.

Mankiw writes that the benefits of the course last far beyond the 13-week semester. Because participants share such personal views, many of them have a chance to develop friendships and learn that it's possible to "understand and even appreciate the perspectives of those with whom they vehemently disagree," he writes (Mankiw, New York Times, 9/8).  

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