Virginia Military Institute has been designated as one of only 10 colleges in the nation to be named a “Community of Practice” from Braver Angels, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting civil discourse, in their College Debates and Discourse Program, through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
In an era when civility is not often the norm in resolving disputes, Braver Angels’ trained experts teach students to express their views, frame persuasive arguments, listen deeply, and engage respectfully with each other around issues that are typically difficult and divisive. Their debates are not competitive but rather a collective exercise in thoughtfulness, respect, and a search for the truth. They are conducted in a light parliamentary style and guided by a trained chairperson. Each debate centers around a resolution chosen in advance. Each speaker has up to four minutes to present their argument and then answer questions from audience participants, who address their questions to the chair. At the end of the debate, there is a short debriefing session.
According to Lt. Col. Kim Connolly, VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics assistant director for programs and conferences, the relationship between Braver Angels and VMI began in 2017 when David Blankenhorn, one of the founders of Braver Angels, was invited to speak at the CLE’s Annual Leadership and Ethics Conference, “Speaking Truth to Power: Candid and Courageous Civil Discourse.” In 2021, the CLE invited Braver Angels back to demonstrate their newly developed college debate programming. “They sent four trained facilitators to run debates on contentious topics during the Leadership and Ethics Conference. That year’s theme of the conference was on citizenship and social responsibility. We invited the VMI Building BRIDGES club to attend the conference and participate in the debates with an eye toward the club carrying the idea forward as a cadet-led activity,” explained Connolly.
Building BRIDGES and the CLE subsequently partnered and held two debates last year. As a result of VMI’s enthusiasm for the program, Braver Angels offered them the two-year research grant. According to Lt. Col. Sara Whipple, Ph.D., psychology department associate professor and Building BRIDGES co-advisor, the grant provides for one faculty fellow and two student fellows and stipulates that VMI conduct one debate post-wide, as well as one debate in a class each semester for three semesters. The fourth semester will involve data analysis. “The purpose of the grant is to provide research on the impact of the debates on those who participate, including their ability to exhibit calm and confidence when conflict arises, and on their leadership skills. Data will be gathered by the 10 partner institutions and sent to the University of Delaware for analysis,” said Whipple.
Col. Valentina Dimitrova-Grajzl, Ph.D., Department of Economics and Business professor and faculty co-advisor for BRIDGES, stated that the first debate is planned for early spring, and the topic will be of particular interest to cadets and life on post. The two student fellows are responsible for determining the topic, publicizing the debates, and recruiting participants. They will be trained to lead the debates by Braver Angels.
The two student fellows chosen for the research grant are Cadets Katie Lloyd ’23 and Devin Thomas ’24, who are both majoring in international studies. To qualify for the fellowship, cadets had to provide a writing sample and pass multiple interviews. Lloyd has been involved with the Braver Angels program since the initial partnership with Building BRIDGES. “I really enjoy watching cadets talk and communicate in the ways that these debates facilitate. I’m looking forward to watching more community members get involved and find the same passion about civil discourse that I have,” she said.
Thomas is confident the program has the potential to become a staple for the VMI community. “Everyone has the opportunity to practice productive discourse within the environment Braver Angels offers by sharing viewpoints on controversial topics while also working to expand perspective by listening to the convictions of others. Through this program, we hope to achieve a shared understanding and respect for others, with the end goal being a more united Corps and greater cadet community,” he said.
Dimitrova-Grajzl plans on introducing the debates in her Institutions and Economics Development class, and would like to see other faculty follow suit. “Braver Angels will conduct training sessions this spring for faculty members who would like to integrate the debates into their classes. I am looking forward to getting more people involved. Through this program, we can foster honest and respectful conversations,” she said.
Within a year, VMI hopes to host an intercollegiate debate or a community debate to teach and expand the philosophy of the Braver Angels: Deep listening, critical thinking, and thoughtful communication.
Marianne Hause VMI Communications & Marketing