Learning How to Disagree
Fostering healthy debate at the Kennedy School
In the weeks following Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack on Israel, Tarek Masoud, Ford Foundation professor of democracy and governance, convened a series of panels at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) on the history and future of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The environment inside those packed auditoriums differed from the popular perception of Harvard last fall: students listened, asked difficult questions, and—notably—did not shout down speakers.
Masoud, who is faculty chair of the University’s Middle East Initiative, curated his panels to stoke disagreement. In a mid-November event (“Israel and Gaza: How did we get here? Where are we heading?”), he brought together Israeli, Palestinian, and American experts, who argued with each other respectfully but enthusiastically. “There were gesticulations and impassioned voices,” he says. After, he says, every Palestinian and Israeli attendee who approached him appreciated the event “because they felt the arguments had actually been had.” Students, he continues, “were thirsting for people to have the argument, not a faux polite conversation.”
Masoud’s series of public panels represents one element in the Kennedy School’s plan to inspire more debate and productive disagreement. In November, the school released a report on “Candid and Constructive Conversation,” assessing how it could better establish an environment where students feel comfortable and confident disagreeing with each other. At the initiative’s core is the belief that disagreement is a teachable skill. “Some people will come to it more naturally than others,” says Dean Doug Elmendorf, but “we can all get better at it through practice.”
HKS leadership believes that future civil servants must be able to interact with dissenters. When graduates enter public service, says Erica Chenoweth, Stanton professor of the First Amendment, who chaired the working group, which was chartered in November 2022, “They’re serving people who are different from them and in some cases may say things to them or about them that they don’t resonate with.” To prepare them for their future roles, Chenoweth continues, students must learn to encounter other ideas “with curiosity and…feel the same urgency to listen as they often do to be heard.”
The task force report capped a year of literature review and student surveys. One of the most striking findings was that people will generally express their true opinions in a small group, but as the room gets bigger, they further restrict their speech. Although more than 85 percent of students are at least “somewhat” comfortable sharing their stance on controversial topics in a one-on-one peer conversation, only around one-third of students would speak freely at a public HKS event. Similar patterns hold for faculty and staff. “The more public the event is,” says Chenoweth, “the quieter people tend to be with regard to their views.”
In the future, Elmendorf hopes to host small group learning sessions before or after large forums, where students can express their perspectives without fear of social consequences. Small groups provide a more forgiving atmosphere than large events or social media. In intimate settings where people “create and enforce norms around respect,” says Chenoweth, speakers can “say something clumsily the first time and recover from it and try again.”
The report also sought to determine why HKS affiliates feel uncomfortable speaking in public settings. Half of surveyed students cited “reputational or relational harm among peers” as a key reason for feeling hesitant about speaking freely, and 57 percent worried that “a person in a position of power might criticize their views as offensive.” Across the board, nearly three-quarters of students believe that the school is not an environment conducive to expressing opinions on controversial issues.
Even in small groups, discussions can be fraught. Faculty and students both reported feeling constrained by “a small, vocal minority in class or in public events who ‘hijack’ the conversation.” HKS affiliates, both conservative and liberal, expressed that sentiment that conversations with people of opposing viewpoints often feel futile “because of perceived incompatibility of underlying values.”
Some of these speech issues go far beyond the Kennedy School. Controversial topics, the report notes, “are controversial precisely because they have not yet been morally settled, and the stakes are high for significant proportions of the population”—they will always be hard to discuss. The report acknowledges the ongoing debate about the merits of free speech versus protecting students from offensive speech. Take, for example, conversations between LGBTQ students and religious conservatives. Although candid discussions of LGBTQ topics and policy implications “can introduce ideas and discourse that are painful and offensive to LGBTQ members of our community,” the report notes, students with conservative views on the topic “ultimately have a right to hold and express them.”
Despite the perception of a poor speech environment at the school, HKS students, staff, and faculty of all ideologies want to discuss serious issues. The task force suggested some tangible steps to make the school more welcoming to disagreement. Candid conversations should be stressed as a core competency in public materials, admissions application questions, and orientation programming. Starting this semester, HKS will conduct training, workshops, and small group discussions within its departments about fostering disagreement.
As the University as a whole considers its free speech policies in the wake of former president Claudine Gay’s ill-fated Congressional testimony, HKS sees itself as ahead of some other Harvard schools. “I think we’re a bit on the leading edge of this round of the conversation,” says Chenoweth. Following the release of the task force report, Chenoweth shared its insights with other Harvard stakeholders.
Tarek Masoud appreciates the intent of the HKS initiatives, but believes they may overcomplicate the issue. “This is not as hard as we make it out to be,” he says. “I really think the way to have difficult conversations is just to have difficult conversations, and not to get overly agitated when a difficult conversation in fact proves to be difficult.”
In his classes on Middle Eastern politics, for example, he assigns readings from a wide ideological range and encourages students to debate their merits. Periodically, he’ll chime in to make a point on behalf of the less popular side. “My students end my class not knowing what I think because I’ve argued with every single one of them,” he says. “Why? Because I want them to be able to defend their position.” Although in-class arguments may leave students feeling flustered, he believes that raised emotions are nothing to fear. “A heated debate in the classroom isn’t a pedagogical failure. It’s a learning experience.”
Masoud believes that students may already be more ready to debate than administrators think. In early November, a first-year M.P.P. student published an essay piece in the Boston Globe criticizing Harvard for not teaching about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Though Masoud questions the core argument, pointing to his well-attended panels, he empathizes with the student’s sentiments. “There’s a deeper truth there,” he says. “She was basically saying, ‘Could you please stop treating me like a child and just do your work? Have the panels, have the teach-ins, have the educational opportunities. Don’t send me emails showing your exquisite sensitivity to my emotional state: that’s not your job. Your job is to teach.’”
To Masoud, the ideal Kennedy School would graduate a class of “happy arguers.” HKS leadership believes achieving that goal may require some coaching of faculty, some convening of students, and some reframing of admissions materials, but it could transform Harvard into a more effective learning community, and make the next generation of public servants more understanding of opposing perspectives.