A space for dialogue: Yale series models civil discussion on hard topics
After the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, and the devastating Hamas-Israel war that has followed, Yale College Dean Pericles Lewis wanted to convene an event on campus in which students could talk openly about the conflict.
On Nov. 16, he invited two Yale colleagues — Feisal Mohamed, a professor of English with Egyptian ancestry, and Peter Cole, a senior lecturer in comparative literature and an American who also holds Israeli citizenship — to a small lecture hall in Sterling Memorial Library for a public discussion about the human dimension of the unfolding crisis.
Their discussion was not a debate — Mohamed and Cole see themselves as fellow workers in the cause of peace. Rather, they shared their feelings about the conflict, read some poetry written by Israeli and Palestinian poets, and then opened the floor to questions.
“The students seemed to want to have a genuine conversation,” said Mohamed, a member of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). “Their questions were informed and really directed at trying to come to a fuller understanding of the many complex issues at stake.”
The event was part of Lewis’s ongoing “Dean’s Dialogue” series, a forum intentionally aimed at modeling and encouraging respectful, curious, and candid conversation about difficult subjects. At a highly polarized time in history, Lewis said, when people with differing views so often tend to yell past each other, particularly on social media, he wants to give Yale students the opportunity to practice a more reasonable approach.
“It’s modeling how you get to that place where you’re able to have an intellectual conversation about a political matter, where it’s not just sloganeering, or ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ on social media,” said Lewis, who is also the Douglas Tracy Smith Professor of Comparative Literature and Professor of English in FAS.
He is also writing a book about higher education based on a course he teaches, “The Purposes of College Education,” which explores, among other themes, the important role education plays in developing personal character, participation in community, and the ability to converse with others on intellectual matters.
Lewis launched the dialogue series about a year ago, with a public discussion around the results of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. That was followed by sessions around U.S.-China relations, virus evolution, and engineering and entrepreneurship.
For the current academic year, he decided to focus the series on social and political issues, eager to encourage the free exchange of ideas in an atmosphere that helps remove some of the accompanying tension.
Before each session, Lewis sends an email invitation to all Yale undergraduates, but requires pre-registration in order to limit the size of the audience. “I feel that 100 people in the room is better than 400 for the type of thing I’m trying to do,” he said. “Intimacy is an important part of it.”
The dialogues always include time for students to comment and ask questions. But the discussions follow the Chatham House rule, which means the conversations are off the record and may not be recorded or quoted in the media. (All of the comments for this article come from separate interviews.)
“We don’t want students to worry that something they say might show up on a news channel or on some social media platform and they could wind up the subject of online vitriol,” Lewis said.
In September, Lewis hosted Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for a conversation that touched on the Greek economy, the country’s ongoing migration crisis, and the Greek political system. The discussion also touched on personal topics, such as how Mitsotakis came to be involved in politics.
In October, Bryan Garsten, professor of political science and the humanities in Yale FAS, talked with Lewis about citizenship and education. That conversation touched upon the issue of meritocracy in college admissions.
For last month’s discussion on the Hamas-Israel crisis, Lewis selected Mohamed and Cole as his guests largely because the two friends had jointly penned a statement in response to the Hamas attack and Israel’s deadly response. It was signed by about 100 faculty members. The statement, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, condemned the killing of civilians, both Israeli and Palestinian, and called for a cessation of the violence.
Cole, the Horace W. Goldsmith Senior Lecturer in Judaic Studies, was initially hesitant to publicly engage in such a fraught discussion. But he and Mohamed both agreed it was necessary.
“We needed to provide a place in which students could both hear things that I sensed they were not getting elsewhere, and also be able to speak out,” he said.
The most recent discussion in the Dean’s Dialogue series, on Dec. 5, followed up on that discussion. Emma Sky, director of Yale’s International Leadership Center, and Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist who often writes about religion, politics, and culture, joined Lewis for a conversation on the broader historical context behind the Hamas-Israel conflict, and the reverberations in the U.S.
“I think it’s hugely important for universities to host these sorts of conversations,” said Sky, whose extensive background in international affairs has included working in the Palestinian territories and as political advisor to the U.S. Security Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. “It’s what a university is for. If you can’t create the space for dialogue at a university, then what hope do we as a community have for improving the world?”
Sky says her professional experience has taught her to approach discussions on contentious issues with humility and humanity.
“These conflicts are very complex, and different parties view things in very different ways,” she said. “The humility piece is in terms of trying to understand the different perspectives. The humanity piece is about empathy.”
As the U.S. approaches what promises to be a contentious presidential election year, Lewis is now thinking about grappling with weighty political topics, not in ways that might only appeal to political science majors but that would inform students studying in any field.
“I think it’s important to practice the ability to talk about things that you care about, to have that intellectual ability, and to recognize other people’s perspectives,” he said. “And in a diverse community like Yale, it’s very important to bring together people of a variety of backgrounds.”