By Tak Ready

In January 1981, my dad Mike Ready, who was then the managing editor of the Traverse City Record-Eagle, interviewed then-governor of Michigan Bill Milliken.

Milliken was a Traverse City native, a Republican and the longest-serving governor in Michigan history. After Gov. Milliken died recently at the age of 97, I decided to go down to my basement archives and re-read my dad’s three-part Record-Eagle interview with Gov. Milliken. Two quotes from Milliken struck me as refreshing in today’s hyper-polarized world.

In response to one of my dad’s questions about working with a legislature from the opposite party, he said, “... there have been tough moments, but in the main it has been a cooperative, working relationship with, I think, mutual respect. And I think the result has been that people of the state have profited. As a matter of fact that working relationship is one of the things I’m proudest of.”

My dad also asked him about having people on his staff who might disagree with him. He responded by saying, “I know there are an awful lot of people who want to tell me what they think I want to hear. I’ve learned to recognize those people and not value them — not trust them. That isn’t what I want. I want the tough questions. I have to have them tough because so much depends on decisions I have to make. I don’t want somebody to tell me what they think I’m already thinking. I want somebody who will challenge me — disagree and fight right up until the time the decision is made.”

Gov. Milliken was right. Fostering civility and productive discourse boils down to surrounding ourselves with people with whom we might disagree, and finding a way to learn from each other in a mutually respectful manner.

For the most part, we don’t do that anymore.

We have too many leaders who surround themselves with sycophants because they are too insecure to do otherwise. We only watch partisan news that reinforces what we already believe. In our personal lives, we often avoid political discussions with people from the other party because we are afraid that our conversations might turn vitriolic. None of this is healthy for our democracy.

So how do we change it?

As a high school government teacher, I believe it all starts with good civics education. In my government classes, I teach kids how to find news from a variety of sources and how to distinguish more neutral news from biased opinions. I embrace controversial topics to allow students to develop their own political ideologies. The students debate what is going on in Syria, Gov. Whitmer’s ban on flavored vaping, and the presidential race.

We do a mock senate, where kids write their own bills and then debate those bills in an attempt to get them passed or blocked. Kids are engaged in a mock supreme court, where two students will act as lawyers, and argue a side in a real court case. Then the rest of the class will serve as supreme court justices, debating and then deciding whose constitutional argument they agree with.

But before we argue any of these controversial issues with each other, we need to be better equipped to have those conversations in a productive manner.

Before we have our very first discussion in class every year, I set the ground rules for debate. Students should feel free to disagree with each other, but they may never personally attack someone. They should support their opinion with cited evidence from a reputable source. They need to listen to each other and not monopolize the conversation. They should be engaging each other with questions.

None of us should shy away from controversy — not in government, not in the classroom and not in our personal lives. As Gov. Milliken said, we need to surround ourselves with people with whom we disagree. We need to argue with each other with mutual respect because only then will we learn from each other and only then will we make better decisions.

About the author: Tak Ready teaches Advanced Placement U.S. government at Traverse City West Senior High School.

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