Texas requires college students to take 42 hours of general education. In these courses, students master six core learning objectives: critical thinking skills, communication skills, empirical and quantitative skills, teamwork, social responsibility and personal responsibility.
Public speaking is part of the core curriculum. And just as speaking is a skill, so is listening. My textbook, “Introduction to Public Speaking: An Inductive Approach,” devotes an entire chapter to the subject.
The ability to listen is essential for each of the core learning objectives. Without learning to listen, students can’t think critically, communicate clearly, reason logically, work on a team, engage in their community or act ethically.
Listening is on my mind as I recall the column that I published one year ago in this space.
In an “Open Letter to White Evangelicals,” I argued that the biblical ethic of loving your neighbor should compel Christians to protect our community by getting vaccinated against COVID, wearing masks in public and rejecting the divisive politics of Donald Trump.
In response, about half of the three dozen online comments agreed with me. Others emailed me privately to say thanks for voicing opinions they were afraid to express openly in their own churches. And unsurprisingly, a column on such a highly politicized issue elicited many vigorous dissents.
Over the past year, I’ve striven to be a voice of moderation. Though I identify with historic conservative, Republican, and evangelical Christian principles – and not what these labels have come to mean since 2016 – I equally celebrate and value diversity and dialogue as the best paths forward in a civil society.
Since local journalism is also vital to a civil society, I’m glad when readers approach me
to express appreciation for or honest disagreement with my columns. By reading our local
newspaper, they’re listening to and engaging with diverse voices in our community.
But I’m also concerned that segments of our community and nation don’t listen. They
hear what they want to hear. On multiple issues, my pleas for civil discourse have been met by
some commenters with epithets such as “Marxist,” “socialist,” “leftist,” “radical,” “blatantly
liberal,” “obvious liberal bias,” “liberal academic.”
This brings me back to listening. True listening doesn’t just “happen.” It’s a learned skill
with two aspects: critical listening and ethical listening.
Critical listening is the key to, in the words of Texas’ core curriculum learning objectives,
“analysis, evaluation and synthesis of information.” A leading theory ties listening to motivation.
Students must motivate themselves to listen to instructors and classmates in order to critically
evaluate what is said. Similarly, in a civil society we must motivate ourselves to truly hear and
fairly evaluate what others say – or else, as the theory predicts, we’ll jump to conclusions.
Listening is also ethical. You listen because you would want others to listen to you – the
Golden Rule – and because a society of closed minds would be poisonous, fairness is a virtue
and respectful dialogue produces the most good for the most people.
Do I believe that conservatives, Republicans and Christians who support a demagogue
are wrong? Yes, I do. Am I also willing to discuss this with people who believe that voting for
Donald Trump was justified by his policies in office? Yes, I am. My column a year ago, for
example, pled for such open discussion.
Fairness also demands that I acknowledge the namecalling heard from the other side, as
the left responds in kind to the right. People attacked as “radical Marxist/socialists” naturally
retort by hurling hyberbolic epithets back at their detractors.
Can we acknowledge that reasonable people – whether liberal or conservative, Democrat
or Republican – can be people of goodwill? That the other side may sincerely believe their
positions best serve the community? That they doesn’t secretly know their positions are wrong
but push their agenda, anyway? That they may even have some ideas worth hearing?
In other words, can we learn the skill of listening?