Nebraska Students Get Lesson in Civil Discourse at State Capitol

High school students at the Capitol Forum in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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March 22, 2018 - 6:45am

In an age of constant information, it’s not always easy for young people to form solid and informed opinions about important domestic and global issues. The mash-up of sometimes shaky sources from social media and the internet can make things daunting. But a two-decade old program is helping Nebraska high school students think for themselves, and also listen to others.

In a vacant hearing room at the state Capitol building in Lincoln, Jace Ahlberg is ready to listen. He’s a social studies teacher at Lincoln North Star High School and is leading a discussion about immigration with high school students from across the state.

“Your ability to talk about it is top notch, so I’m eager to hear people from each group kind of share out,” Ahlberg tells the students, who are separated into small groups.   

The discussion is part of the 20th annual Nebraska Capitol Forum on America’s Future, where 100 students from 25 Nebraska high schools gathered this week at the Capitol to discuss big issues like terrorism, trade, climate change and immigration.

The conversations are measured and cordial. That isn’t by accident. The students have been learning about civil discourse, the deliberative process and how to evaluate news sources. Ahlberg is encouraged that young people are willing to listen to other opinions.

Schedule at Capitol Forum in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)  

“I personally look at trying to get students to identify where their opinions come from, and usually it comes from their own experiences and their experiences are different than other people,” Ahlberg said.  “So if they can accept that their opinions are based on their experiences, it’s easier to understand that other people have different opinions because they had different experiences. And so then at least they don’t have to necessarily agree with other people’s opinions, but they understand that it’s different.”

For students like Waverly High School junior Analiese Wiedenbeck, this is about her future. She wants to be ready.

“Here, most of us are not 18 yet and we can’t vote, but it kind of lets us talk to other people who are the same age and in the same area and generation and look at all the sides before we get to the point where we can vote so that we’re not 18 and don’t know what’s going on,” Wiedenbeck said. “We’ve had opportunities like this and we do know what’s going on and we are informed when we get to the age of voting.” 

Teachers encourage the students to take a position that isn’t their own so they have to look at it from someone else’s perspective. It isn’t always easy, but Bellevue West social studies teacher Robin Kratina thinks it’s an important part of the process.

High school students in hearing room at the state capitol building in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“I try to tell them and I think what they get from here is it’s okay to be divided,” Kratina said. “It’s not okay to be divided and polarized, not willing to listen, not willing to understand how did you get on that side and how did I get on this side.”   

The Capitol Forum on America’s Future is sponsored in part by Humanities Nebraska. Executive director Chris Sommerich says in today’s political climate, it’s crucial that young people learn to be open to other ideas and opinions.

“It’s getting harder and harder to get people to listen to each other from different points of view,” Sommerich said. “I think that we all have a lot to learn from each other and issues are never quite as easy to understand as they may seem.”

Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale has been a part of the Capitol Forum program for nearly two decades. He believes students in today’s digital age have to learn how to filter information on domestic and global issues themselves.    

“They have to be grounded in principles and concepts and values and once they’re grounded through programs like this then they can be their own filter, which is what every citizen has to do anyway,” Gale said. “Whether you’re students or adults, you’ve got to learn to filter the truth and the untruth based upon your core concepts of what is American, what do we believe in and what’s our future.”

As Grand Island Central Catholic freshman Hayden Price mingles with other students in the hallways of the state Capitol building, he knows this is important.

“We are the future of the United States government and possibly Nebraska’s government and we need to be involved, because one day we will have to lead the government and we will have to lead the people and this prepares us for that,” Price said.  

With a big smile on his face, he moves off to engage his new friends and into his future as an informed, engaged citizen.

By way of full disclosure, NET receives funding for humanities reporting from Humanities Nebraska.  



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