From the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community

Introducing the

Penn Public Talk Project


The Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community, convened and chaired by President Judith Rodin, is now moving to put into practice the ideas generated during its three years of work.

Since its inception in December 1996, the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community has sought to understand the problems of contemporary public discussion and behavior and to foster more engaged and thoughtful conversations about contemporary social issues. During the Commission's inaugural session, President Rodin challenged 48 scholars, political leaders and shapers of public opinion "to address the polarization, oversimplification, and isolation from important cultural and intellectual traditions that are increasingly characteristic of contemporary social and political discourse."

Reflecting Penn's special heritage of uniting theory and practice, the Commission has aimed not only to understand the dynamics of public discourse and contemporary culture, but to put its understandings to work. In this spirit, the Commission's recently launched Penn Public Talk Project is undertaking a broadly conceived, nationwide effort to improve the conduct of public discourse.

With the Commission's study phase completed, programs developed by the Public Talk Project will reflect the central insights of the Commission: Productive public discourse integrates rational deliberation with personal narrative and relational features to strengthen communities. Such fully realized, robust discourse enables citizens of diverse backgrounds and opinions to do real work together on issues of perceived consequence and importance in their own lives and communities. (For more information on the Commission's key findings see below.)

The first local effort of the Public Talk Project will encourage and develop student participation in robust discourse. Starting in March, a new program called PennTalks will give Penn undergraduates an opportunity to share with each other their hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the Penn community of the 21st Century. The program will start with undergraduates this spring, and if successful, be extended to faculty, staff and graduate students in the future. (See box below.)

The Public Talk Project will also enlist other colleges and universities into its national effort by co-sponsoring with Campus Compact a Presidents' Leadership Colloquium on Higher Education for Democracy: Strategies for Civic Engagement on the Penn campus next June.

Programmatic initiatives such as these are designed to achieve three critical tasks that the Commission has identified:

  • Creating a nationwide network of venues that are available and committed to the conduct of productive public talk and the development of robust communities of conversation;
  • Developing a cadre of leaders who are committed and properly prepared to lead these conversations; and
  • Demonstrating exemplary discourse practices through a variety of public programs that address societal issues on which there is substantial disagreement.

Through both its own public programs and partnerships with a wide variety of other organizations and institutions-discourse programs, libraries, museums, colleges and universities, community organizations, issue advocacy groups, human relations organizations, and professional and affinity--based associations--the Penn Public Talk Project is working to strengthen an emerging national movement in support of good public discourse and strong, inclusive communities. Building on the work of the Penn National Commission and the concrete experience of many other organizations, we are moving quickly towards the creation of a broadly-based national coalition for discourse and community.

-- Stephen P. Steinberg, Executive Director



The Penn Public Talk Project has launched a new program that gives faculty, staff and students the opportunity to articulate and share with each other their hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the Penn community of the 21st Century. Starting with undergraduates, PennTalks will encourage students to share their thoughts with peers, senior administrators, and the entire Penn community. Student volunteers will be trained to lead a series of small group conversations in their college houses, fraternities, sororities, interest organizations, and any other place that students get together.

Students may participate as either facilitators or members of a group. The program starts with facilitator training on Friday, March 3, followed by small group discussions during March and early April. Each conversation will feature a small group of individuals learning from one another in an interactive, collaborative manner. Volunteer student facilitators will lead the conversations. Though discussion guides will be distributed in advance to all participants and will feature a variety of questions and alternate viewpoints designed to stimulate discussion, PennTalks conversations have no pre-determined agenda--or outcomes--and are intended to foster energetic, honest discussion about the issues and concerns that matter most to the student participants.

Enthusiastic support has been received from several student groups, including the Undergraduate Assembly. The UA is co-sponsoring the project and working to secure both facilitators and the broadest possible student participation in the discussion sessions. Civic House is also serving as a co-sponsor and providing facilities for training and additional discussion sessions.

In addition to the community-building effects of the program, the findings should present a vision of the Penn community students want to build and could inform future strategic planning and campus initiatives. If successful, PennTalks will be expanded to include staff, graduate students, and faculty. As a program of the Penn Public Talk Project, organizers are hopeful that PennTalks will serve as a model for robust, productive community discourse at other colleges and universities.

For more information visit the website,


The Work of the Penn National Commission

Early in its deliberations, the Penn National Commission identified three deficiencies that have strongly influenced 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.

Through its plenary discussions, papers, commissioned research, and other activities (for more information, see the PNC website at, the Penn National Commission has crafted an ambitious agenda to improve the conduct of public discourse and create stronger and more inclusive communities across America. These efforts reflect a central insight of the Commission: Robust, engaged public discourse on issues of perceived consequence creates and strengthens diverse, inclusive communities. By giving citizens real "work to do together," such conversations can help individuals of diverse backgrounds and opinions deepen their understanding and recognition of mutual differences while strengthening their sense of shared community.

Commission members met in six thematically-linked, semi-annual meetings across the country:

  • Following the Commission's first meeting at Penn in December 1996, members reconvened in Philadelphia in June 1997 for a discussion of the influence of mass markets and government policies on the dynamics of public culture.
  • Washington was the venue in December 1997 when Commission members shared their thoughts on Public Behavior and the Responsibilities of Institutions, an examination of the leadership roles of government, universities, professional sports, and the military in shaping public discussion and setting-or failing to set-behavioral norms.
  • Moving to Chicago in June 1998 for sessions on Leading The Conversation: Leadership in a Democratic Society, members examined the difficult dynamics of "national conversations" on race and affirmative action.
  • Members convened in Los Angeles in December 1998 to deliberate Enriching the Conversation: Community in the 21st Century. This meeting explored the critical role of institutions and leaders in creating strong "communities of conversation" both at home and abroad.
  • The sixth and concluding session took place at Penn on November 8-9, 1999, when Commission members discussed Celebrating the Conversation: Public Discourse in Action. This meeting reviewed the effectiveness of contemporary discourse programs and considered ways to improve the conduct of public talk in the United States.

In addition to the plenary meetings, a body of commissioned research, presentations and essays added to the Commission's effort to understand the problems of contemporary public discussion and behavior, and to foster more engaged and thoughtful conversations about contemporary social issues.

For more information on the Penn National Commission or the Penn Public Talk Project visit, phone (215) 573-6666 or e-mail


Key Findings of the Penn National Commission

The pervasiveness of uncivilized behavior that so many of us complain about is not really a new phenomenon, according to the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community. While the advent of mass media and instant global communications may amplify uncivil language and behaviors that have always been part of human societies, the Commission believes that promoting opportunities for more engaged and productive deliberation--even when unpleasant--is the best way to create a more inclusive and civil society.

The Commission's findings are drawn from the proceedings of six, thematically-linked, plenary sessions held in Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles; from commissioned research; and from three working groups that were formed to examine issues of public culture and behavior, leadership, and community. Among the research studies were those that identified the characteristics of good public discourse, good discourse practices, the dynamics of political apology, forgiveness and reconciliation, the characteristics of effective discourse leadership, and the role of institutions in providing opportunities for productive public discourse.

Among the key findings are:

  • Incivility Is Not New: Rather, incivility and coarseness are a continuation of behaviors that have always been with us. It is a behavior greatly amplified by changes in the social context in which it occurs, by the economic dynamics of mass markets, by the new technologies of mass communication, and by laissez-faire governmental policies.
  • The Centrality of Public Discourse: Public discourse, or "public talk," plays a central role in the functioning of a well-ordered democratic society, facilitating productive dialogue on such "hot-button" issues as immigration, race, abortion, and affirmative action. The processes of engaged, productive public discourse de-sensitizes such issues and facilitates co-existence, even in the face of frank opinions, uncivil behaviors, and irresolvable disagreements.
  • The Thinning of Public Discourse: Population growth, technological change, mass migrations, economic development, widespread literacy and education, and other historical changes have all worked to spread-out public discourse, "thinning" it, to use historian and Commission member Tom Bender's phrase. Add to these changes a cacophony of new voices in the cultural mix, and good discourse becomes harder to see, hear, or participate in. Conversely, "bad" discourse seems louder and more dominant. The Commission's approach is to "thicken" public discourse by submerging uncivil behaviors in a wealth of constructive and energetic public debate.
  • Good Public Discourse Has Changed: A useful formulation of what constitutes good public discourse emerged from a review of the scholarly literature on this subject prepared for the Commission by Dr. David M. Ryfe of the University of California at San Diego. Ryfe says that, traditionally, good discourse has been interpreted solely as rational argument. Today, good deliberative discourse integrates rational arguments with narratives, personal experiences, the expression of emotion, and empathetic listening. Discourse fashioned along these lines will be argumentative--but argumentative in a way that seeks to achieve greater inclusion and stronger communal bonds.
  • Institutions Playing a More Important Role: The Commission has concluded that a variety of social and cultural institutions (private foundations, museums, historical societies, libraries, universities, corporations, sports, and the military) have assumed important, new roles in creating "communities of conversation" among increasingly isolated individuals and groups. Historically, these organizations have been rarely thought of as central to the creation of a sense of community or to the provision of forums where citizens can engage in frank, sometimes upsetting, public interaction. In many instances, these organizations have filled the gaps left by political parties, churches, and labor unions, which have historically provided such forums, created and engaged diverse communities, and used their professional resources to foster productive public discussion.
  • The Importance of Effective Discourse Leadership: The Commission's analyses of the public discussions surrounding major public policy issues such as affirmative action, campaign finance reform, immigration, health care, tobacco, civic journalism, and arts funding have highlighted the crucial role that leaders in all walks of life play in shaping and setting the tone for public talk. Preliminary research sponsored by the Commission suggests that even small interventions by leaders can reduce conflict and stabilize communities.
  • Creating Communities of Conversation: Public culture is the place where we constantly negotiate the boundaries of privacy and public interest and the tensions created by different visions of the public good. The Commission has concluded that there is a need for a more active and self-conscious effort-a national movement-to create a public culture that supports the building of strong discourse communities and engages in substantive, honest, and productive public dialogues.

An extensive archive of the Commission's findings, implications, papers, plenary presentations and discussions, videos, commissioned research, and working group papers is available in transcript, video and audio formats on the Commission's website at or in its electronic journal, Public Talk: The Online Journal of Discourse Leadership, at


Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 23, February 29, 2000