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Brattleboro - Spring 2019

Good Clash: Why Democracy Depends on Productive Disagreement

Presented by Meg Mott, Professor of Politics, Marlboro College

At the New England Youth Theater, 100 Flat Street, Brattleboro

Mondays, 10:00 am to noon

April 1: Constitutional decision-making: turning querulous passions into productive debates.

How can we have a democracy when people are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered? In the pre-modern era, political theorists counted on religion or reason to constrain the passions. In the United States, we came up with a complex system to confound an energetic faction from holding the rest of us captive. This class considers the philosophical principles, as well as assumptions about human nature, that guide our deliberative democracy.

April 8: Cognitive Dissonance: why one side misunderstands the other.

In recent years, social psychologists have developed a theory of cognitive dissonance. Rather than reflect on our opinions, we tend to confirm our initial bias. When we meet someone who disagrees, we spend time trying to prove them wrong rather than reassessing our initial thoughts. This class considers how difficult it is to maintain healthy skepticism in public debates and how we might reintroduce it into particularly thorny issues.

April 15: Thorny issue #1: Abortion.

In 1973, the Supreme Court attempted to define women’s reproductive rights in Roe v. Wade. Rather than settling this debate, that decision spawned the powerful “right to life” movement. This class considers the rational arguments on both sides of the issue as well as the cognitive dissonance each exerts on the other.

April 22: Thorny issue #2: Capital punishment.

In 1972, the Supreme Court struck down a set of convictions in Texas and Georgia, arguing that statutes that allowed for the death penalty violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause in the Eighth Amendment. In 1976, they reversed that decision after 35 states rewrote their death penalty statutes. Since then almost 1,500 people have been executed in the United States. Once again, we’ll consider arguments on both sides of the issue as well as the cognitive dissonance each exerts on the other.

April 29: Thorny issue #3: Guns.

In 2010, the Supreme Court struck down a Chicago ban on handguns, arguing that the right to bear arms was a fundamental right. In the wake of mass shootings, a powerful gun safety movement has rejected the Court’s interpretation. We’ll consider arguments on both sides of the issue as well as the cognitive dissonance each exerts on the other.

May 6: Democracy and Humility.

All three of our thorny issues engage with matters of life and death. As such, they operate at the very limits of our wisdom. This final class considers the courage and humility necessary to debate matters of existential proportion. What skills and principles do we need to make these important clashes more productive?

Meg Mott has taught political theory and constitutional law at Marlboro College since 1999 and has moderated Putney’s Town Meeting since 2016.

WHERE WE MEET: New England Youth Theatre, 100 Flat Street, Brattleboro, Vermont.

DIRECTIONS: From the South or the North: I-91 to exit 2. Left off exit ramp onto Western Avenue (VT-9). Follow about a quarter mile, bear left at "Y" in road. At traffic light, Main Street (US-5), turn right. Go 2 blocks to Flat Street and turn right onto Flat Street. The theatre is down the street on the left.

QUESTIONS: Please call Julie Lavorgna at 802-365-7278, or e-mail

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Membership Information (Fall and Spring Sessions)

$30 individual (6 sessions)
$50 couple (6 sessions)

Individual lectures are open to nonmembers for a fee of $6 per lecture.

We encourage attendees to pre-register by mail so as to avoid delays at on-site check-in.

For membership, complete the form on the site brochure or click on this membership form. Mail your completed form with your payment to:

(payable to "The University of Vermont")
UVM OLLI Registration Office
460 South Prospect Street
Burlington, VT 05401

For a complete listing of all programs, see our listing in a pdf format.