Trying to launch ideas Confession of the Dean of a Community College

If you haven’t seen John Warner’s piece yet that the controversy is central to the college experience, denying this notion, check it out. It’s well worth reading.

I come to the part where we talk about the middle ground. My father has been teaching debate for decades. I taught it for a few years. The girl had been an active debater for several years. I’ve worked as a tournament judge for years, and as an alternate coach at a memorable event. A background in political philosophy and around all that time and controversy, you would think I would be a huge champion among them.

Not really. At least, as they are often not managed.

When TG was in junior high, he joined the debate team. The Jersey Shore Debate League has grades 6-8. The culture of the league was wonderful: it was about helping kids build confidence as public speakers and improve their research skills. There were eyebrows at the showboating; The point was the best argument you could make. TG quickly became the star of his team, mostly because of an almost terrifying ability to quickly make an argument. But the league was just about winning. It was really about helping students develop skills and confidence. We both like it. He later commented that after the debate tournament, class presentation was a breeze.

When he was in high school, he joined the debating team there (and I signed up again as a tournament judge). But the whole culture was different. At this level, it was no longer about raising children. It was about sophistry. It was about winning. Where the Junior High League was supportive, the High School League was a cutthroat. He left halfway through his new year and never looked back. I can’t blame him.

In my opinion, the ideal version of the debate in the college setting is closer to his junior high experience than his high school experience. A really good college class – at least in subjects like the ones I taught – lets students try different ideas and see how they fit. This necessarily involves taking some risks, and involving some level of belief that the trial and error process will not be taken as an expression of some kind of deep-character error. Ideally, the best classes allow students to follow their ideas wherever they lead, even if the students surprise themselves.

In that setting, a certain kind of debate can be effective. It’s kind of like “What do you think …?” Objections, and allows the respondent to adjust as the new argument unfolds. It is something close to an ideological scientific approach, where new arguments or information give a moral person a license to change their mind. (Of course, the way science is practiced doesn’t always adhere to that standard – arrogance is real, even there – but as a norm, it’s worth it.) Gives and draws battle lines. Anyone who has followed American politics over the years has seen more of that style and its cost.

One of my favorite teaching strategies, when it comes to issues on which disagreements are expected, is that people on each side make the strongest arguments in favor of the other side. This is an unusual experience for the first time, but once students get stuck in it, they sometimes realize that what seemed clear at first glance is much less so when they look more closely. They also understand that there may be a distance between themselves and their opinions.

All of this requires a high level of confidence that no one will record for 30 seconds and post an idea that they later discard. And it is absolutely necessary that the kind of trolling that certain actors try to pass as a debate on their agenda should be stopped. Anyone who enters a class to make sure they already know the answers, and who just wants to pick a fight, is not really a student. They are a plant. Students need to be tested, to accept arguments or information that they did not know or consider before, and to change their minds.

The instigators with the agenda are trying to use the concept of debate as a hoax, I have to say no. Such steps stop the learning process. To the extent that the controversy is imagined as an opportunity to hold different views against each other, I propose an enthusiastic yes. Students need room to try ideas. Not all of them will fit. Part of that process.

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