Arthur S. Meyers, Director of Middletown’s Russell Library, holds a copy of his newly published book, Democracy in the Making: The Open Forum Lecture Movement
Middletown Author’s New Book May Help Gun Control Discussion
MIDDLETOWN - In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, citizens in Newtown have created a grassroots organization seeking to create an open discussion on the gun control debate. The citizens intend to include in their discussion the lack of funding to diagnose and treat individuals afflicted with mental health issues as well.
Russell Library Director Arthur Meyers’ new book, Democracy in the Making: The Open Forum Lecture Movement, addresses these types of social issues.
“They should have civil discourse, one thing we need desperately today,” he said.
He writes about this way of discussing social problems in his book, which describes the movement, its 1908 founding by Boston Baptist leader George W. Coleman, and the impact of the movement on American society. Coleman, writes Meyers, “brought vision, dynamism and a deep commitment to free speech in developing the Forum.” The movement was a “remarkable change in direction in community learning.”
The open forum was an adult education movement much like the League of Women Voters, Chamber of Commerce, Common Cause, Bill Moyers’ program, and CSpan today. Unlike today, when people tend to seek the views that match their own biases, whether through the voices of conservatives like Rush Limbaugh or the progressive presentations of MSNBC, the Open Forum was “in a nutshell,” said Meyers, “the “striking of mind upon mind.”
Meyers said the essential structure of the open forum, civil discourse, would be the best format for not only trying to make some sense of the heinous acts of violence experienced in Newtown and other American communities, “but to work together to find ways to make all communities in the U.S. safer places for all people.”
Hopefully, said Meyers, the civil discourse format would also help to prevent the kind of acrimonious debates and “extreme fixed positions” to which Americans have been subjected on television, radio and in Congress. He said civil discourse could help people to discuss serious controversial social issues in a much more constructive and productive way.
“Understanding this initiative broadens our awareness of personal and community courage and democratic planning,” he said.
Meyers said the Open Forum was virtually revived in Middletown on Jan. 20, 2009, immediately after people gathered at Russell Library’s Hubbard Room to watch President Obama’s Inaugural Address. The conversations held at the Hubbard Room were facilitated by Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz at noon and by City Common Council member Philip Pessina at 6 p.m. Conversations took place at about 19 different locations in the city, each led by a facilitator who helped guide the conversations and gather ideas and proposals to compile into a record, which would eventually be publicized in a report by the committee. (The report is available in Russell Library at 711.4 MID.)
The Open Forum format provided that a lecturer, speaker, or presenter would present an idea for or against something. Following the hour-long lecture or a debate between two speakers on an important topic, was an hour-long period for questions to the lecturer, or audience comments about the topic or about others’ questions. A moderator, essential to the format, made sure that people who asked questions were civil, respectful, and did not monopolize the question period.
The one goal of Coleman, and other leaders, was “to bring information to people. They did not have a plan, they were not political, and they did not set out paths for people,” said Meyers.
After the question period, people could then form groups at the same forum meeting or later and decide together to pursue a course of action or make recommendations for some sort of action.
Coleman, recognizing the crucial role of publicity, employed “Mary Caroline Crawford, [who,] with extraordinary skill and intelligence, was key in implementing the movement. It reached thousands of people, from a wide range of economic backgrounds and faiths,” wrote Meyers. It especially made a large impact on Indiana; a Congregational minister in Terre Haute and a Reform rabbi in Hammond “brought diverse viewpoints and cultures to their largely homogeneous cities through the Forum.”
Meyers said he would like to try to do something like the community conversations again, but at this moment, he felt limited by time. He did refer to a modern movement called the National Issues Forums (NIF) that the Kettering Foundation helps fund. Foundation President David Matthews said the NIF “is certainly a close descendant of this important movement [the Open Forum].”
All forum activity is locally organized, moderated, and financed. Just as the Open Forum provided instructions on how to organize a forum, NIF also provides similar guidance for forums. NIF does not advocate specific solutions or points of view but provides citizens the opportunity to consider a broad range of choices, weigh the pros and cons of those choices, and meet with each other in a public dialogue to identify the concerns they hold in common.
Meyers said people should try to use these Open Forum strategies with questions the nation is dealing with today to try, “as much as possible, to discover the beliefs and values we hold in common and be open-minded to others’ values, ideas and topics, and above all, to listen to each other.
“My hope is that people would come together and eventually reach an understanding of solutions that can lead to a change in direction,” he said.
Meyers referred to President Obama’s speech on Dec. 14 about gun control, in which he said that we can’t say it can’t be done; we have to work on it.
Obama said, “We have to change...the complexity of the causes of such violence...can’t be an excuse for inaction...Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”
Meyers said he hopes that civic discourse will replace the “screaming match about the role of guns and how best to protect people.”
Meyers asks in the introduction to his book, “Can we regain this informed, reflective, respectful approach? Can the framework of the Open Forum spread further? Could the method cross today’s socio-economic barriers to enter local and national discussions and engage us through electronic connections? Can we achieve an America “to be” -- a democracy in the making?”