Too often, even in the world’s more open societies, when conflicts arise, quarreling and name-calling displace vibrant, critical debate. The recent fight in the United States over the raising of the debt ceiling is an obvious case in point. Though Congress and the president did eventually reach an uneasy, 11th-hour compromise, for weeks elected officials and political pundits drowned out what should have been a spirited but reasonable exchange of ideas on how to best address an issue of pressing public concern.
Public posturing to manipulate public opinion in advance of next year’s elections made it difficult, if not impossible, for citizens of any age to gather the unbiased information they needed to come to an evidence-based conclusion on what policy to support. For young voters, who turned out in record numbers for the 2008 elections, the lack of debate on critical issues in an increasingly partisan sphere must make for a particularly dispiriting public spectacle.
The failure of U.S. policy makers to engage in open-minded debate on issues like debt relief, climate change, terrorism, drug policy reform, and migration affects us all. Global issues require global debates.
Since societies function best when policy issues are examined from a range of different perspectives, the Open Society Youth Initiative is launching a new $20-million Global Debates program to strengthen debate organizations at colleges and universities around the world. Our goal is to help engage students in the policy issues that will have a lasting impact on their future.
There is no better place for young people to learn to engage in these global debates than in college and university classrooms. Institutions of higher learning should provide students with the technical or vocational skills necessary for the marketplace, but they must also cultivate a student’s recognition of thoughtful civic engagement and encourage them to consider global issues from a perspective other than their own. And it should not just be at the world’s most elite universities where students are offered the opportunity to engage in civic and civil debate. A commitment to promoting public discourse should be woven through the fabric of all educational institutions to help ensure that young people the world over have the ability to use the force of argument and not just the argument of force to express themselves.
The new program will provide up to three years of support to colleges, universities, and other educational institutions to promote and integrate debate across disciplines. Grants are available for institutions that have either very small debate programs or none at all. Grants are also available for institutions seeking to promote public debates within the broader communities that they serve.
I encourage you to learn more, spread the word, and apply. View a list of all Youth Initiative grants.