01/09/2013 03:09 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

Make a Stronger Case for Your Cause by Being Civil and Well-Informed

I had the idea for this blog long before the tragic events of Friday, December 14. Like all Americans, my heart goes out to all who were impacted by the terrible tragedy in Connecticut.

In the coming months we will debate a host of issues associated with this tragedy and keeping our children safe: gun control and gun rights, mental health screenings and treatment, and school and workplace safety. They join other issues that inspire great passion in our communities and across the nation, just as I experienced after my first blog post: A Maryland Dream Needs to Become a National Dream.

Vocal and lively debate is a grand part of the American tradition, evident in the free speech guaranteed in our country's Bill of Rights. Flash forward from our founders' early vision to today's blogosphere, and it is clear that free speech is alive and well. Today, millions of us have the opportunity to think aloud, chime in, and share our views like never before.

While I cherish this robust and substantive dialogue, I am concerned with one aspect of the debate: the tendency to "otherize," rather than humanize, those with whom we disagree. I use the term "otherize" to refer to that quick dismissal of those who hold different opinions. When we put people in that category of "other," we refuse to see them as valued contributors to the debate.

Free speech and civility can and should co-exist. Showing courtesy and respect to each other -- including those with opposing viewpoints -- is essential to a civilized society. It has been reported that one of the earliest and most powerful forces to shape our nation's first president, George Washington, was his hand-copied list of the 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Rule one sets the tone: "Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present."

I would argue that, in today's society, "in company" and "those that are present" extends beyond those individuals with whom we have face- to- face conversations to include those on the other end of our digital interactions. So, to my readers: I am grateful for your interest and your passion. Let's keep it real and respectful.

We can learn a tremendous amount by studying the values of our forefathers. Thomas Jefferson, a consistent and passionate supporter of access to education, including higher education, wrote in a letter to George Wythe,

"I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness...Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people."

President Jefferson would no doubt relish informed and civil discourse on our college campuses -- with an emphasis on the need to back one's positions with the knowledge called for in his letter.

Because we all know that offering an opinion is easy. Offering an informed and thoughtful opinion should be something more; it should come after reflection and thought that may challenge our assumptions. It should make us uncomfortable by the sheer brain energy that comes from seeing an issue from multiple perspectives, from developing thoughtful arguments that debate ideas. Yet the reality of today's communication tools and our fast-paced need-to-know-now mentality can result in too many opinions with too little knowledge and thought behind them.

How can we elevate the discourse? We can commit to forming opinions steeped in experience and knowledge, as well as maintaining an openness to explore and respect all sides of an issue.
I fear if we don't make this commitment, we risk our ability to successfully engage in community building, solving national problems, and responding to global differences.

Our nation's colleges and universities have a wonderful opportunity to truly intellectualize the debates occurring across the country. College campuses are spaces where students should challenge, explore, debate, grow, and disagree. In fact, I would contend such interactions are an essential part of the college experience. And that very much includes community colleges and our students.

Community colleges like mine are firmly anchored in our counties and communities and are highly motivated to invest in our county's greatest assets: our people. After all, our success is directly tied to their success. We cannot, and will not, shy from the difficult conversations in our communities -- quite the contrary.

We should look forward to such dialogues at my institution and colleges across the country. As a microcosm, college and university campuses are the bellwether for the state of national discourse. If we can't get it together -- if we can't air our differences and remain civil -- we have a real problem facing this country. I remain hopeful that America's seats of higher learning can have just the dialogue Presidents Washington and Jefferson would have wanted -- vigorous and rooted in knowledge and no matter how heated, respectful.