Crisis of Civility: PBS Open Mind Host Alexander Heffner Delivers Annual Rothrock Lecture
Crisis of Civility: PBS Open Mind Host Alexander Heffner Delivers Annual Rothrock Lecture

Upper School students engage in energetic, and civil, socio-political conversations

"Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out." Beginning with these words attributed to his grandfather, Alexander Heffner took to the Princeton Day School podium in McAneny Theater today and delivered a cogent analysis of what he terms the crisis of civility in the country today. An expert on American politics, the youth vote, and the world of ideas across civic life, Mr. Heffner is the host of The Open Mind, the longest-running PBS show on civic life. His talk spilled across both aisles as he defined the ways in which the elected and the electorate contribute, or not, to the betterment of the Union.

Democracies, by nature, are required to engage in robust conversations about ideas and ideals, but three crippling features of our current environment are preventing many conversations about critically important issues from even being initiated, he stated: bigotry, obstructionism, and dysfunction. "We, as millennials and post-millennials, have to solve this problem," Mr. Heffner continued. His talk was a cautionary tale and a call to action, exploring a number of macro and micro areas — from the exploitation of social media to the shifting role and focus of journalism to determining whether the rule of law is equitable to all people — in which civil participation is the key to overcoming dysfunctional societal trends and politics.

Questions from students at the lecture and in classrooms afterward, including AP Comparative Government with Mr. Heffner on hand to answer, reflected a high degree of interest in current issues whose outcomes seem likely to significantly affect the future direction of the country and world. Amon DeVane '19 started the post-lecture Q&A with an especially powerful request for Mr Heffner to define where one can draw the line between freedom of speech and the rejection of hate speech.

History Chair Howie Powers '80 introduced Mr. Heffner and underscored the importance of the Anne Rothrock Lectureship Fund, an annual event endowed in 1996 thanks to the generosity of many admirers of Ms. Rothrock, a legendary PDS history teacher who dedicated her life to her students and their search for a deeper understanding of the world. The Rothrock Lecture has been an annual civic lightning rod for Upper School students, providing direct exposure to national figures in history, economics and public affairs. Past speakers have included Ben Bernanke, former Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank, philosopher, activist and social critic Cornel West (at Princeton University when he spoke here), Greg Mankiw, former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and a long list of other luminaries, including several PDS alumni. -Melanie Shaw

Photos: Alexander Heffner with History Chair Howie Powers '80; Alexander Heffner with Eyal Yakoby '20 after answering questions in AP Comparative Government; Alexander Heffner with Head of Upper School Trixie Sabundayo