Enriching the Conversation

An Update on the Work of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community

Community in the 21st Century

The fifth plenary meeting of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community will take place in Los Angeles on December 17-18, 1998 on the theme of "Enriching the Conversation: Community in the 21st Century."

On Thursday, the meetings will take place at the architecturally significant Getty Center. Among the sessions planned for that day are a discussion of the cultural context of public discourse, the conduct of public discourse, and concurrent sessions on the role of key institutions-- universities, museums, and foundations--in leading civic discourse. Confirmed participants for the sessions on Thursday include author Jonathan Franzen, Dr. Andrew Kohut, Director of the Pew Center for the People and the Press, Edward Rothstein, cultural critic for the New York Times, Professor Richard Weisberg, Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, Dr. Barry Munitz, President of the Getty Trust, and Dr. Andrea Rich, President of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In the sessions to be held on Friday, the Commission will turn its attention to building discourse and community outside of the U.S. with examinations of recent developments in South Africa, Northern Ireland, Israel, and Eastern Europe featuring a presentation by Mr. Alex Boraine, Vice Chair of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Also confirmed for participation are Mr. Robin Wilson of Northern Ireland's Democratic Dialogue, and Professor G.M. Tamas, the E.L.Wiegand Distinguished Visiting Professor at Georgetown University.

Portions of the presentations and discussions will be webcast; see the Penn National Commission website, www.upenn.edu/pnc after December 1 for more detailed information. Video and transcripts of previous Commission meetings are also available on this site.

About the Penn National Commission

The Penn National Commission seeks to foster the "reasoned and reasonable" discourse essential to the productive conduct of social, political, cultural, and community life in a democracy. An international group of forty-six scholars, political leaders, and shapers of public opinion, convened in December 1996 by University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin, the Commission is meeting over a three-year period to understand the problems of contemporary public discussion and behavior and to foster a more engaged and thoughtful public discourse in the 21st century. (See Almanac December 10, 1996.)

The Problems of Public Discourse

Early in its deliberations, the Penn National Commission identified three deficiencies that have a strong influence on the character of public discourse and public behavior: a Failure of Leadership, in the continuing dialogue between and among leaders and constituencies; the Fragmentation of Communities, in which race, class, ideology, ethnicity, and special interests divide and sub-divide rather than unify civic life; and a Culture of Intolerance, expressed in the incivility, intolerance, and ideological polarization that dominate our public discourse.

The Work of the Commission

The Penn National Commission, which met for the first time in December 1996 and will conclude its plenary sessions here at Penn in June 1999, is working through a variety of mechanisms to understand and influence the conduct of public discourse:

Plenary Meetings

Six thematically-linked, semi-annual plenary meetings, in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles, are being held to advance the Commission's deliberations and outreach activities.

Working Groups

Three deliberative working groups are at the heart of the Commission's research and programming activities: Culture and Public Behavior, Leadership in a Democratic Society, and 21st Century Community. Each working group is charged with investigating one of the three major problem areas identified by the Commission and is developing educational products for professional and public audiences.

Research Program

In its research program, the Penn National Commission has undertaken three essential tasks in understanding contemporary society and culture:

    • To Document the Condition of Contemporary Public Discourse What is the present state of public discourse? In what specific respects does it fail to approach the standard of "reasoned and reasonable" discourse described by the Commission?
    • To Define Exemplary Public Discourse What is "reasoned and reasonable" discourse? What are its component elements? How has it changed, if at all, over time? How and why does it work when it works well?
    • To Identify the Principles and Conditions of Successful Discourse Leadership What are the characteristics of effective discourse leadership on the part of individuals? What institutional practices promote communities that foster strong and productive public discourse? Is a strong community associated with good discourse practices? Can exemplary discourse practices be used to reintegrate isolated subcommunities into a larger society or bridge barriers of hostility between communities?

Widening the Conversation

The Penn National Commission is engaged in an ever-widening conversation designed to test, refine, and disseminate the Commission's ideas. Starting with the membership of the Commission itself, moving outward to a network of emerging academic, professional, and opinion leaders, and ultimately, to local communities, campuses, and the general public, the Commission's public programs reflect the experimental nature of the Commission's inquiry--rather than issuing traditional reports and recommendations, the Commission invites its audiences to test its ideas in the actual conduct of public discourse. In support of these objectives, the Commission is undertaking a variety of informational and educational activities designed to engage a wider leadership and public audience in the Commission's work.

    PUBLIC TALK: The Online Journal of Discourse Leadership
    The Commission's electronic journal, Public Talk, features presentations from PNC plenary meetings, PNC-commissioned research and articles by Commission members and staff.
    The Commission's formation expresses PENN's fundamental commitment to academic excellence, technological innovation in research and communications, and the importance of bringing academic and professional resources to bear on urgent social problems. The University of Pennsylvania's educational philosophy, dating to the principles of its founder, Benjamin Franklin, links the theoretical and the practical and makes the Penn National Commission a natural extension of the University's core identity.

As an important part of its efforts to widen the conversation, the Commission will sponsor several programs on the Penn campus during 1999:

    • White Dog Cafe Series, February 8-May 4, 1998: "Celebrating the Conversation: Public Discourse, Democracy and Community" This series of "table talks" at the White Dog Cafe is designed to introduce the work of the Penn National Commission to members of Penn's campus and community. It will feature presentations by President Judith Rodin, several Penn faculty and Commission members including Drew Faust and Michael Useem, and members of the Penn National Commission staff.
    • PNC on ResNet, Winter 1999 The PNC will present a series of programs over ResNet this winter and spring. The programs will feature presentations made at Commission meetings by such noted speakers as Sen. Bill Bradley, essayist Richard Rodriguez, and Harvard law professor Christopher Edley. These talks will be followed by conversations among small groups of students and a faculty moderator. The programs will be linked to several companion activities-including an electronic chat room on the PNC website.


Visit the PNC website at www.upenn.edu/pnc for more detailed information on these and other PNC@PENN programs during the spring semester.

--Stephen P. Steinberg, Executive Director, PNC

Following is a list of the membership of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community,updated from the list published in Almanac December 10, 1996

Members of the Penn National Commission

  • Professor K. Anthony Appiah, Harvard
  • Professor Joyce Appleby, UCLA
  • Gen. (ret.) Julius Becton, Jr., District of Columbia Schools
  • Professor Thomas Bender, NYU
  • Professor Jean Bethke--Elshtain, Chicago
  • Professor Derek Bok, Harvard
  • Hon. Bill Bradley, Stanford
  • Professor David Bromwich, Yale
  • Professor E. L. Doctorow, NYU
  • Professor Drew Faust, Pennsylvania
  • Professor James Fishkin, Texas
  • Dr. Mari Fitzduff, INCORE
  • Professor Joel Fleishman, Duke
  • Professor Lani Guinier, Harvard
  • Professor Rochelle Gurstein, Bard
  • Professor Amy Gutmann, Princeton
  • Dr. David Hamburg, Carnegie Corporation
  • Hon. A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., Harvard
  • Mr. William Hudnut, Urban Land Institute
  • Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Pennsylvania
  • Professor Randall Kennedy, Harvard
  • Professor Richard Lapchick, Northeastern
  • Professor Lawrence Lessig, Harvard
  •  Mr. Tom Luce, Hughes & Luce
  • Professor Martin Marty, Chicago
  • Hon. Abner Mikva, Chicago
  • Professor Michael J. Piore, MIT
  • Professor Don Randel, Cornell
  • Dr. Judith Rodin, Pennsylvania--Chair
  • Professor Jay Rosen, NYU
  • Mr. Karl Rove, Karl Rove and Co.
  • Professor Andras Sajo, Central European University
  • Professor Michael Sandel, Harvard
  • Professor Michael Schudson, UC-SD
  • Professor Martin E.P. Seligman, Pennsylvania
  • Professor Neil Smelser, Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences
  • Mr. Robert Richard Spillane, U.S. Department of State
  • Professor Claude Steele, Stanford
  • Professor Cass Sunstein, Chicago
  • Mr. Calvin Marshall Trillin, The New Yorker
  • Professor Edna Ulmmann-Margalit, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Professor Michael Useem, Pennsylvania
  • Mr. Paul Verkuil, Yeshiva
  • Professor Robert Wiebe, Northwestern
  • Professor William Julius Wilson, Harvard
  • Professor Robert Wuthnow, Princeton

Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 13, November 24, 1998