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Civility in Discourse: The Past, Present, and Future of Adult Civic Learning, Remarks Michael E. Hill President

Civility in Discourse: The Past, Present, and Future of Adult Civic Learning 

Free Lecture - Wednesday, May 17th, 2017, 7:00 PM - 8:30 PM 
Jefferson Educational Society

In a world no longer easily defined by religion, occupation or geography, can cultural institutions bridge generational divides, such as those between digital immigrants and digital natives?

How can “institutions,” which by their very name are distrusted by the millennial generation, continue to be a driving force in shaping the cultural landscape in the age of continuous connection and partial attention? And, how can we embrace natural and unlikely partnerships alike to achieve relevance and vibrancy? Mr. Hill will discuss the roles that generational shifts in the use of leisure time and the unending evolution of technology play in the cultivation of intellectual curiosity and societal wellness. 


Remarks Michael E. Hill President 

Chautauqua Institution 

Good evening. It is such a wonderful privilege to join The Jefferson Educational Society for this forum. Thank you for providing this platform for dialogue and debate in the interest of civic engagement and community pride and education. Chautauqua Institution shares these lofty and important ideals, so it is a true delight to join with you in advancing what we see as seminal community-building virtues. 

I also want to acknowledge Dr. Andrew Roth, president of St. Bonaventure University and my friends and colleagues from Bona’s who are with us this evening. Dr. Roth, thank you for creating this opportunity to partner with the Jefferson Educational Society. I know we share common aspirations to build on this relationship, and I’m grateful for this evening. 

If I may, I would like to take just a moment to say a bit more about Dr. Roth. As you all know, he was selected just about one year ago to move into a transitional leadership role at St. Bonaventure following the presidency of Sr. Margaret Carney, who retired after an esteemed term of leadership spanning 12 years. This transition happened at a time when political, social, demographic and economic forces were bearing down even more heavily on higher education – having a disproportionately negative effect on small, independent institutions like St. Bonaventure. 

Dr. Roth accepted the challenge and has boldly led the institution through a series of decisions and strategies that have contributed significantly to the university’s ability to achieve enrollment growth – even amidst the dawn of Governor Cuomo’s “Free Public College Tuition” era. 

Dr. Roth’s leadership also helped to position the university to successfully recruit its next president, Dr. Dennis DePerro, who takes the helm next month. 

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We often talk about leadership, and the importance of leadership in government, business, and nonprofit realms. Yet, our nation’s higher education leaders increasingly find themselves in the crosshairs of controversy – much of which is not kind, most of it impatient, and often – in my view – unfairly critical. 

Yet, these individuals – Andy, Dennis, Sr. Margaret – and here in Erie – Eric Barron (at Penn State Behrend), Michael Victor (at Mercyhurst University) and Keith Taylor (at Gannon University) -- are leading organizations that are responsible for nurturing the intellectual, political, social, service, moral and ethical future of our nation and the world. And they are also key economic drivers for a region in the process of revitalization and reinvention. 

Dr. Roth, not only do I thank you for all you have done to welcome me in leadership to this region, but we owe you and your higher education colleagues an immense debt of gratitude for the burdens you so graciously shoulder – and for helping our higher education institutions lead the way to the most impactful solutions to the intractable challenges of the future. 

Among the challenges that we face together is the deterioration of civil discourse and – perhaps more troubling -- generational divisions and disconnects that are making it more difficult for us to talk with one another – or even to have the motivation to listen or engage in a conversation with someone whose views may be different from our own. 

There are many reasons for this deterioration and – let’s be clear – this is by no means a new phenomenon. Even George Washington is reported to have – at age 16 – penned 110 Rules of Civility. While likely an exercise in penmanship, and reportedly drawn from a set of rules composed by French Jesuits, the existence and frequent reference to Washington’s views on civility suggest that, in America, we’ve been struggling with civility for – well, forever. 

But, as I have poured into the history and legacy of Chautauqua more intently over the past year, and as I have joined with you in experiencing historic transitions and transformations the world over, there are some patterns emerging that signal fundamental shifts that call for close examination. These shifts can be viewed through at least three lenses: technology; biology; and the arts. 

I’ll start with technology

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According to the Pew Research Center, in 2016, more than 60% of Americans got their news from social networking sites (Gottfried & Shearer, 2016). When we speak of social media, we must acknowledge the ubiquitous nature of Facebook – its market share is undeniable. So, when we say 60% of Americans got their news from social networking sites – we’re speaking largely of Facebook. 

Is there anything wrong with this? Certainly, you might say that Facebook is to blame for the emergence of “fake news” and, if we agree on that, then the 60% figure is beyond problematic. 

However, let’s agree for a moment that every user of Facebook has the ability to distinguish between fake news and legitimate news. And, it is the case that Facebook is adding tools that help us to determine the legitimacy of sources, including the new “disputed” tag that is coming up on posts that users have reported as “fake.” 

Does this make us feel better about the fact that 60% of Americans are getting their news from Facebook? 

I say no. It should not make us feel any better, because Facebook – a for-profit business – is a system that optimizes for engagement. Ultimately, Facebook wants you to spend more and more time on the site so it can monetize your engagement. The algorithm is based on things you like, share, and spend time reading. Facebook exists to please you. This means that you end up seeing things that confirm to what you already believe to be true. Facebook has no incentive to feed you anything other than that which you want to see. 

The reality of Facebook’s impact on society is of significant consequence. For example, the proportion of professionally produced news content that was shared on social media in Michigan the day before the general election in November was at an all-time low. A one-to-one ratio; 50% of the content shared was not produced by a professional journalist (Staff & Deiters, 2017) 

Robert Thompson (2017), CEO of News Corp (New York Post, among others), claims “Facebook has created a dysfunctional and socially destructive information ecosystem.” 

Now, this is not to say that Facebook and other new media have no value to the civil discourse agenda; certainly, they do. Social media has opened opportunities for a wider range of voices to be heard and for new collective conversations to be curated in a what some might consider a new digital town square. 

Chautauqua will be exploring this in its own future. All that said, while journalists like to say they exist to provide a voice for the voiceless – and many times they do – it is impossible for journalism as a field or industry to be perfectly inclusive in the execution of that mission. 

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But social media can and in many ways has leveled the playing field like no other medium. Clearly, there remain parts of the world without technology access – and that is an agenda and discussion for another time. But, there is no denying the role that social media plays in providing access to the conversation. We continue to watch this transformation unfold – some of us from the sidelines. 

If you’re on the sidelines, you watch millennials – and some gen-Xers --glued to their phone screens for what feels like inordinate and inappropriate amounts of time – not to mention at inappropriate locations and venues such as the dinner table or the office environment, right? 

As the host father to a Finnish exchange son, I have long contemplated whether seizing his iPhone would be the equivalent of pulling the cord on a life support machine. 

You watch as they move through life in a bubble they construct with their “Beats by Dr. Dre” and their mobile devices. They’ll pull the headset away from their ears if you physically shake them to get their attention. But, just for a moment and not for anything resembling a conversation. 

Have they checked out of the “here and now” completely? How can they possibly listen to music and work, study or even sleep at the same time? 

• What if they haven’t checked out? 

Is it possible that they’re just more decisive -- more discriminating about the way they direct their attention? 

The largest population of podcast listeners in this country are ages 12-24. 27% of respondents in a 2016 survey age 12-24 listened to podcasts every month compared to 11% of respondents age 55 and older and 24% ages 25-54 (The Infinite Dial, 2016). 

They are also spending plenty of time on Pandora and Spotify, for sure. But, I would argue that millennials are more deeply engaged than you might think, which may signal a re-emergence of civil discourse – or at least discourse; but perhaps not in the way that most people in this room have come to know it. 

And this notion of how young people convene and connect is at the center of what I believe to be the prescription for engagement going forward. More on that later. 

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• I was recently visiting with a couple who stopped by the President’s Cottage. One of them was in his 40s, the other in his 30s. Here was our generational representatives – the man in his mid-40s was a Gen Xer, ready to contribute his time and resource and anxious to participate. Chautauqua was right up his alley and had been a part of his life since growing up in Jamestown. His fiancée, however, did not care for Chautauqua all that much. I probed this, knowing that he was intellectually curious, considered himself a spiritual seeker and loved the arts. When I asked why Chautauqua was not high on his list, he started with a trademark millennial response: “We don’t trust institutions, and it’s in your very name.” We spent several hours debating this generational construct. At the end of the conversation, I asked, given that at our core we care about the same things, what would make you want to come and participate. 

• He asked a salient question: “Where are the most young people on the grounds?” I responded that this was likely our arts quad, where most of the students and budding professional artists lived. His recommendation? Put a bricked patio there, complete with a perpetual fire pit, Adirondack chairs and plenty of wi-fi … and don’t program it! Stay out of the way and allow us to form community in our own way. 

The generational lesson holds: It’s not that Millennials aren’t interested in lifelong learning practices. It’s simply that they convene and access community differently than prior generations. There’s a lesson for those of us interested in gathering the next generations in dialogue.

This leads me to the lens of biology

Author Matthew Crawford has written some provocative books including Shop Class as Soul Craft in 2009 and more recently The World Beyond Your Head (Crawford, 2016). In that most recent text, he weaves an argument based on the assertion that, “Attention is a resource, convertible into actual money.” 

He asks: What is the price we are paying for the increasing market value of our attention? 

Just think about how advertising and marketing invades new spaces every day. 


-The screen of the credit card terminal at the checkout line spews advertising while you wait for your card to process. 

-The flipside of hotel card keys. 

-Even commercial-free radio and television – NPR – is a platform for ‘sponsorships’ that consume increasing amounts of that commercial-free space. Civility in Discourse Page 6 

And, just like everything else, there are “haves” and “have nots.” Those with the most resources can determine who gets to interrupt them. 

-Think of the popular app Pandora – you have to pay for ad-free listening. 

-The Business Class lounge is the only quiet, advertising-free space in the airport. 

I am tempted to buy a sponsorship on NPR -- or an ad – that plays 30 seconds of nothing; perhaps just crickets chirping, concluding with: 

o This 30 second respite is brought to you by the Chautauqua Institution – where it’s always OK to take a break from it all; and where time to think translates into the time of your life. 

Seriously, the increasing distractions in our world are not only making us more agitated (Crawford calls distraction a kind of “obesity of the mind”); but distractions are also stealing away our time to dream; time to imagine; time to call our mothers, something that mine takes umbrage with, and she told me so as she forced me to work on a jigsaw puzzle last night. 

Crawford (2016) argues that deep engagement with the physical world is the only way for us to see how manufactured experiences truly pale in comparison; which is what led me to relate his thesis to our challenge of civil discourse. 

Are the mediated – immediate – and sometimes anonymous experiences of online engagement pale substitutes for face- to-face dialogue and debate? 

And, what does that say about the role of face-to-face instruction in a college classroom or the forums for dialogue we create at Chautauqua? 

What does it say for the ways Millennials and Gen-Xers show up for work? 

I wonder also if, over time, our increasingly interrupted and mediated world will change the ways our brains form and function. There is ample evidence in the fascinating emerging field of internet addiction that points to chemical changes in the brain of people addicted to gaming and other online activities. 

For those suffering from addiction, the changes in brain chemistry require treatment – and, yes, Internet Addiction is a recognized disorder chronicled in the Physician’s Desk Reference. I will note that one of the world’s leading investigators in this field is Dr. Kimberly Young, professor of communication and leadership at St. Bonaventure. 

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So, there is evidence to suggest that humans are impacted at the biological level – and at least strong arguments to suggest that traditional, face-to-face human engagement may well be a magic salve. 

This is where the arts come in: Can the arts bridge generations – and can arts organizations lead the way to deeper civic and civil engagement? 

The Role of the Arts 

While arts and cultural organizations – including the Chautauqua Institution – strive to remain relevant on a landscape that seems to shift and pivot in sometimes disparate directions daily, one of the things we aren’t struggling with, on average, is engagement of Millennials. 

The National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, representing a sample population of more than 98,000 respondents, says Millennials are actually the most frequent attendees to cultural organizations today (Dilenschneider, 2016)

This means that if your cultural organization’s attendance patterns are not following this trend, i.e. your audience is still greatly comprised of Baby Boomers and Traditionalists, then you are already way behind. 

If you combined Millennials and Generation X into one generation, Millennials would compose 2/3 of that group (Dilenschneider, 2016)

But, the incentive to get serious about serving Millennials is not only related to the sheer size of this population. It is also their attitudes and behaviors. 

Millennials tend to be more likely to be a return patron, they bring others along with them, and their propensity to share experiences with their enormous networks means they do your advertising for you – which is good when they are happy and not so good when they’re not. 

Millennials are an organization’s most loyal high- propensity visitors. Capture them, and the data suggest they are most likely to come back – and relatively quickly! 

o Consider this amplifier: For every one millennial that we fail to engage as a sector, we miss out on 1.411 visits to cultural organizations (Dilenschneider, 2016)

For those with limited marketing and advertising bandwidth, there’s some good news here. 

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The world is becoming “more millennial” and that is not simply because we are becoming outnumbered.2 The other generations are adopting their behaviors and preferences. 

Therefore: Appeal to Millennials and, likely, you’ll appeal to Gen-Xers and even some Boomers. 

Could it be they are pointing us to a model that will better serve all generations? 

Patrick Overton (1997), the author of a provocative book titled “Re-building the Front Porch of America,” wrote in his thesis that the rapid implication of technology and the design of home were replacing the ways in which we created community. We used to gather on porches to catch up on the news of the day. Modern design works to decrease engagement and to promote privacy. But what does that do to our ability to build community? Overton theorized then that perhaps cultural institutions could be the new front porches of America. 

In this hyper-wired moment in society, does the theory extend that our arts and cultural centers have the potential to become not just the front porches but, indeed, the “Town Halls” of the future – the places where intergenerational engagement occurs – both face-to-face and by way of technology -- in ways that engage all the senses? 

And, if we consider our venues and centers as “town halls”, how does that call us to engage differently during the course of doing business? 

What does that say about the way we produce, stage and accommodate guests for the symphony? A play? 

• What does it say for what happens before, during and after a performance? 

For digital engagement? 

What does it say for the composition of our Boards? 

Even the National Endowment for the Arts (2014) is recognizing this necessary shift. From its current strategic plan that sunsets at the end of 2018, I cite: 

• Recent NEA research shows flat or reduced rates of attendance at certain types of live arts events (e.g., classical music, jazz, theater, ballet, and opera). On the other hand, arts events at schools and religious institutions are drawing large numbers of unique audience members, as are outdoor fairs and festivals. 

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• Similarly, other informal activities—including personal exhibits/displays and performances of artworks—and greater exposure to online arts experiences, provide for more customized arts experiences and opportunities to combine art with social networking. Through these activities, Americans find more interactivity than they often find in traditional arts venues. 

These are the questions and findings that are informing the new era at the Chautauqua Institution and, without this turning into a commercial for my organization, I thought it might be instructive for you to see how our vision for the future is unfolding. 

A New Era for Chautauqua 

In January, I went back to Washington and experienced firsthand both the inauguration of Donald Trump and the Women’s’ March. There couldn't have been two very different experiences, but, as I was in the Metro system trying to get to a dinner at a friend’s house which was just four Metro stops away (foolish me, there were thousands of folks clogging the metro system), two things struck me: One is that those who were riding public transportation that day were also on opposite ends of the spectrum. Some were very excited about the Inauguration, some weren’t; some were lifted up and energized by the Women’s March, some weren’t. 

But the prevailing question that came out of the mouth of the people in metro system that day was: “Now what?” 

And I think that simple yearning is the prevailing question for us in the United States as we struggle to be able to talk to one another unless we are in total agreement. 

As we find safety in our echo chambers, the question of “Now what?” becomes more and more relevant. 

Chautauqua has a history that lends itself to want to be the Institution that convenes the answer to “Now what?” 

Why did Franklin Roosevelt give his “I hate war” speech from our Amphitheater stage? Our 15th President, Dan Bratton, with colleagues asked the extremely important questions about how could the U.S. and the Soviet Union find common ground versus division; and then-Director of Religion Joan Brown Campbell came along and said the great religions of the world must work together, so we laid claim to our interfaith commitment that is now poised to propel Chautauqua to the center of national and international conversations on faith. 

Just yesterday, we announced that retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson will assume the role of Vice President and Senior Pastor at Chautauqua. Through his international contacts 

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and reputation, Bishop Gene will build on Joan’s work to truly make Chautauqua an internationally recognized center for interfaith dialogue, leadership and expression. Who have many over-the-top enthusiastic responses been from? Millennials. 

Chautauqua has in its DNA, in its bones, a desire and urging to be the place that answers the question of “Now what?” I believe firmly that the manifestation of our founders who debated whether this was a place or movement (to which my answer is “yes”) said something about what was happening in society. 

Leisure time was showing up for the first time and yet it wasn't expedient or popular to say you can take a vacation. We found a way around that in a dynamic that way we are still enjoying today. But, a different and expanded expression of Chautauqua is ready to step up to be the answer to a society that is yearning for something different. 

I believe truly that the purest manifestation of that idea will always happen in our nine weeks. But, I don't believe that our greatest calling ends at the close of our nine weeks. 

Chautauqua has a platform and convening authority that allows it to extend the conversation beyond the season. When we're not able to host at Chautauqua, can we come to you and to cities across the nation? 

Can we be connecting you virtually in other ways so that if you're hungry for a muscular civic dialogue, that’s something that happens year-round under the auspices of Chautauqua. I'm looking forward to that work, for me it's generational work so hopefully at 43, I have a little time. 

But, as we rethink what Chautauqua will mean in this next era of its life and as we approach our own sesquicentennial, we are also thinking about the real future of the organization – its life with millennials and the generations that will follow them. 

We are one of those cultural organizations whose patrons over-sample in the Gen X, Boomer and Traditionalist generations. So, we know we must reshape our programming, our venues, and our organizational disposition-- and quick. Things like: 

• Transforming our gates – into gateways 

• Creating pathways to Symphony as an art form of choice. Our performance of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone this summer is a great example of rethinking the invitation to enjoy an orchestral performance. 

• Imagine: what if our Hall of Philosophy was seen as an intellectual “Fire Pit” for a new generation? 

• Does our Boys and Girls Club think of itself not in terms of gender but as more of an Adventure Club? 

• Diversity -- in all its forms. How can we claim to be the convener of the world’s most critical conversations when large portions of the population are not at the table? 

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▪ Certainly, distinction by age but what about ▪ Socioeconomically disadvantaged populations 

▪ Racially diverse groups 

Those from world religions and those who are in the growing designation of “seekers. Can we be a center that welcomes people of all faiths and none? 

The concept of the Kettering Forum (Rourke, 2014) plays deeply here. The concept is that deliberative forums yield insights about public thinking that are different from polling data. Polling provides snapshots about public thinking that, when looked at together, produce a picture that can seem incoherent. Public opinion surveys show a public that often appears uninformed, contradictory, unwilling to make choices, easily manipulated, and quickly polarized. But in deliberative forums, citizens come together, exchange views authentically but civilly, weigh the nuances and trade-offs of potential solutions, and move toward a truly sound judgment on the issue. From these forums, policymakers can get a considered, seasoned judgment that reflects a knowledge based on the interaction of citizens, not off-the-cuff answers to a quickly posed question. This sounds a lot like Chautauqua to me! 

▪ Partnerships for relevance ▪ Comedy Center 

CLE International Film Festival 

Cleveland Foundation 

National Geographic 

Can Chautauqua sponsor a post-college study abroad tour? Ideal for a partnership with Youth For Understanding 

▪ How can we continue the engagement of the hundreds of young adults who view Chautauqua as a premier internship or pre-professional experience venue? This should be the first step in a lifelong relationship. 

▪ And, for those of you who know Chautauqua well, did you ever think you’d see us hosting a Food and Wine festival? It’s coming this season, during week nine. 

As we do a better job of serving millennials, I think we will see that the character of that generation is truly calling the world to a more inclusive, civil form of engagement across all life experiences. 

Most Millennials think our nation’s preoccupation with race, gender, nationality and sexual orientation is silly. And, the one thing all that time spent with Beats on their ears has done is it has made them great listeners. 

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As we seek to better serve and engage Millennials; as we increasingly adopt their preferences and dispositions, maybe great listening will begin to span all generations. 

Maybe our preoccupations with difference will morph into fascination and a yearning to truly understand. I aim for Chautauqua to be a laboratory where these transformations can be tested, experienced and affirmed. If we are successful, only then can we truly claim to have ushered in a new era. 

If the question is “Now what?”, I believe the answer is “Chautauqua.” 

• Thank you. 

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Bieber, L. (2012). Stories for Change Leadership Examples of Expanding the Arts to New Audiences (Rep.). Washington, DC: Partners for Livable Communities. doi: 

Crawford, M. B. (2016). The world beyond your head: how to flourish in an age of distraction. United Kingdom: Penguin Books. 

Dilenschneider, C. (2016, January 13). Real Talk: Why cultural organizations must better engage millennials (DATA) [Web log post]. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from 

Gottfried, J., & Shearer, E. (2016, May 26). News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from 

Overton, P. (2001). Re-building the front porch of America: essays on the art of community making. Astoria, OR: PrairieSea Press. 

Rourke, B. (2014). Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums (Rep.). Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation. doi: 

Staff, E., W., & Deiters, B. (2017, April 06). Study: 'Fake news' flooded Michigan in November. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from 

The Infinite Dial 2016 (Rep.). (2016). Retrieved May 12, 2017, from Edison Research and Triton Digital website: 

The National Endowment for the Arts Art Works for America (Rep.). (2014). Washington, DC: doi: 

Thomson, R. (2017, April 04). Fake News and the Digital Duopoly. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from 

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