ATHENS, Ohio (Dec. 16, 2005) -- Potential first-year Ohio University students have something new to consider when they think about becoming Bobcats in 2006-07. As many as 200 students will have the opportunity to participate in the new Difficult Dialogues program that includes an academic camp and special residential learning communities. The program, which is supported by a two-year $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, will help teach Ohio University students how to engage in spirited, constructive dialogue with people of differing views.
The Ford Foundation's Difficult Dialogues initiative was created to encourage students and faculty to participate in constructive dialogue about contentious political, religious, racial and cultural issues. Many experts agree that civic debate in America has become an increasingly partisan and divisive activity in which participants try to win an argument rather than look for mutual enlightenment.
"This program illustrates Ohio University's commitment to offering students the best possible learning environment by encouraging them to interact with people of varying religions, ethnicities, classes, genders and physical abilities," said David Descutner, dean of University College and associate provost of undergraduate education.
"If we promise to prepare students for the real world as we do, then we must create opportunities for students to learn about our pluralistic, diverse society and about how they can talk with and disagree with others in reasoned, civically responsible ways," he said.
"We want students to welcome meeting and conversing with others who hold different views and to expect to leave conversations with a greater understanding of and respect for the others' views, as well as with a commitment to reflect critically on their own assumptions and beliefs."
Ohio University's program, tentatively called Difficult Dialogues Concerning Race and Religion, was selected for the Ford Foundation grant from more than 675 proposals. The program will include a three-day camp the week before the start of fall quarter 2006 in which students learn productive modes of dialogue about complex issues. The students involved in the camp will live in residential learning communities where they can participate in difficult discussions through formal and informal activities.
"We hope the students will get tuned into the idea that there is important stuff going on at Ohio University and meet friends with whom they can challenge each other in inquiry and dialogue," said Steve Hays, associate professor in the Department of Classics and World Religions.
The grant also supports the development of three new permanent courses. The courses will widen the reach of the program because they are open to any Ohio University student. They cover a range of topics related to difficult discussions: diversity of religious belief in Ohio; religion, ethics and laws concerning gender and sexuality; and race, politics and religion.
"One of the central features of a good undergraduate education is that it trains people to think critically," said Hays, who oversaw much of the proposal process. "To say, 'Wait, what is this person thinking?' If students participate in discussion that way, they become leaders."
Faculty in the Department of Classics and World Religions and the Department of African American Studies collaborated with Descutner to create the proposal for the new program.
Twenty-seven higher education institutions received the grants for projects that promote academic freedom and constructive dialogue. During the course of their two-year initiatives, grantees will share their experiences and ideas at regional conferences and on a Web-based forum for project directors.
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