Carrying on a civil debate doesn’t come naturally to most people.
They need all the opportunities they can get to observe and practice, preferably at a young age.
Millie Aulbur spent nearly a quarter-century promoting civil discourse and showing teachers how to create those opportunities for the children in their care.
“That was a deliberate track I took, working with teachers to bring civility to the classroom,” said Mrs. Aulbur, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City and retired citizen education director for The Missouri Bar.
In December, she became the 2020 recipient of that organization’s Dr. Warren H. Solomon Civic Virtue Award.
This award is given in recognition of people who exemplify and promote civic virtue among Missouri’s teachers and students.
Mrs. Aulbur’s successor at The Missouri Bar, Citizenship Education Director Dr. Tony Simones, said Mrs. Aulbur is a natural choice for this honor.
“Millie created a citizenship education program that impacted a generation of students and prompted many to pursue a career in the law,” Dr. Simones stated.
“In addition, she empowered teachers to create educational opportunities that were learner-focused and challenged students to think analytically and critically about our constitutional system,” he said.
The program she created has been nationally recognized for its excellence, and she has helped Missouri maintain a greater commitment to the principles enshrined by the founding fathers and those who created the Constitution.
Mrs. Aulbur is passionate about providing teachers a clear method and framework for teaching and modeling proper civic discourse to their students.
“You can have the debate but you don’t violate people’s personal space,” she insisted.
She said that when then-Executive Director Keith Birkes of The Missouri Bar hired her in 1994 as the new citizenship education director, she “had no idea what an opportunity had landed in my lap.”
That work ended up putting her into contact with dedicated teachers who inspire students each day to become engaged citizens.
“These teachers’ passion for civic education and lawyers’ dedication to the law made for a perfect marriage,” she stated. “Preparing materials and programs for these teachers was something I never tired of doing.”
She would organize several workshops and in-services each year.
“And at every institute, every seminar, we had something we called ‘civil conversations,’” she said. “We taught teachers how to do an exercise with their students about having a civil discussion about current events and respecting each other’s opinions.”
She grew to love the method so much that she started using it in her own everyday interactions.
“It’s refreshing,” she said. “There’s so much ugliness. Access to 24/7 news with all of those vitriol voices can make people become really uncivil.”
Source of civility
Mrs. Aulbur called to mind the repeated warning of 18th-century U.S. statesmen James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, authors of the Federalist Papers, that this nation’s system of government will only work if civic virtues are accepted and widely practiced.
“That means subverting your own individual needs to the greater good,” she said, “which happens to be what a good Christian does.”
As a Deist, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, believed in God but thought that an enlightened society could practice civic virtue apart from Him.
“But he ultimately realized that that would not work,” said Mrs. Aulbur. “First of all, you have to have belief in something greater than yourself.”
She noted that people are often searching for a better way to distill their principles and put them into practice.
“They want to see goodness and civility in the world,” she said. “And for me as a Catholic, I believe that means going through Jesus Christ.”
Shown and grown
Mrs. Aulbur believes Judeo-Christian values can and must elevate public discourse in this country.
Through her Catholic upbringing and her involvement in Cursillo, she learned about the importance of inviting people into the Christian experience by first modeling her faith in everyday life.
“We talk about giving witness wherever you are,” she said. “In the workplace, if you are a good, decent Christian person, people are going to connect the dots. They’re going to notice what’s good about you trying to be the best Catholic you can be.”
God uses that kind of everyday witness to draw people to Himself.
Mrs. Aulbur believes civic virtues are “caught” in a similar fashion.
“John Locke spoke of life, liberty and pursuit of property,” she said. “The caveat is that your pursuit cannot interfere with another person’s. That’s why we have to have government in the first place.
“But it has to be civil, civil, civil!”
She pointed to the decades-long friendship of the Supreme Court Justices Anton Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“They could not have been more diametrically opposed on the bench,” Mrs. Aulbur noted. “They were of different religious backgrounds and of two completely philosophical mindsets in interpreting the Constitution.”
They disagreed vigorously, but then they put that aside and could enjoy playing bridge and having dinner together.
“It doesn’t need to be, ‘you’re either with me or against me or you’re a bad person,’” said Mrs. Aulbur. “We need to be setting a better example for each other and the future leaders of our nation.”
She’s proud of all the young people she got to see putting their knowledge and values into practice during The Missouri Bar’s Center for Civic Education’s programs.
“I firmly believe those of us who got caught up in the perfect storm of teachers and lawyers coming together have produced some incredible leaders for our country,” she said. “And they know civics!”