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On Teaching the Debate

May 20, 2009

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. The idea of not taking sides in the classroom but just “teaching the debate” neutrally is stupid.

The idea is this: you, as a professor, shouldn’t take sides with, say, pro-life or pro-choice positions when you teach about them. You should just present both sides of the debate as clearly as you can and let the students decide for themselves. You shouldn’t care what position they take, but just make sure they have a good argument or a good defense for whatever position they do take.

Let me respond to this with five points.

First, there is always more than two positions on any given topic. Pitching all debates as if there were only two positions leaves students with a binary way of thinking—you’re either a republican or a democrat, for democracy or totalitarianism, for women’s rights or for sexism, for gay rights or homophobic, for racial equality or part of the KKK. Binary thinking produces an impoverished, absurd, and childish view of the world.

Second, this sort of binary thinking sometimes lends itself to demonizing those who are different from you—they hate, they are sexist, they are racist, they are homophobic, or whatever. People who disagree with you on social or political issues must do so not because they’re wrong, but because they’re evil or mean.

When the problem with one’s opponents is that they’re too mean, the solution is to encourage them to be nicer or more tolerant. However, as Wendy Brown notes in Regulating Aversion, this approach

substitutes emotional and personal vocabularies for political ones in formulating solutions to political problems. When the ideal or practice of tolerance is substituted for justice or equality, when sensitivity to or even respect for the other is substituted for justice for the other, … then the field of political battle and political transformation is replaced with an agenda of behavioral, attitudinal, and emotional practices. (16)

“Be nice to others” is never a good substitute for “stop participating in an exploitative set of social relations.” There’s a black janitor who cleans the hallway outside my office. I can say “hi,” waive hello, or ask about his kids every single day until I die and that will not, in itself, correct the radically disproportionate ratio of whites to blacks on my college’s faculty.

Third, when the “teach the debate” approach doesn’t lead to the vilification of the “opposite” view, it often results in some sort of lazy appeal to “balance.” This happens when students come to the conclusion that whoever stands firm on any particular end of the spectrum must be an extremist—the solution is to come to some sort of wishy-washy middle ground. In translation, this means “don’t take a stand at all.” That is, taking the middle ground practically amounts to quietism.

Fourth, how about a little reductio ad absurdum? Should we just teach the debate without taking sides when covering the following issues?

  • flat-earth views vs. round-earth views
  • earth-centered cosmologies vs. heliocentric cosmologies
  • arguments for the enslavement of blacks vs. arguments against the enslavement of blacks
  • arguments for the universe being billions of years old vs. arguments for the universe being six thousand years old
  • arguments for women’s right to vote vs. arguments against women’s right to vote
  • arguments for anti-Semitism vs. arguments against anti-Semitism
  • Mein Kampf: pros and cons

Whenever I make this point there’s always some idiot who doesn’t get it and who says, “But we do teach about Mein Kampf or the arguments against women’s right to vote.” Yes, of course we do, but as historical curiosities, not as possibly legitimate positions. I guarantee that at no mainstream American university can you take a geology course that presents the 6,000 year-old earth view as a viable option.

Fifth, the idea that you, as an instructor, shouldn’t care what position your students take but should just make sure they can defend it well ignores the extent to which some positions are so superficial that there cannot be a good defense. If I have a student who believes that all Jews are part of a world-wide conspiracy to take over the world, well, he’s shit out of luck if he wants me to help him find a good argument for that position, because there is no good argument for that position.

Isn’t it part of our job as instructors to challenge students with ignorant views? I don’t think we should help them defend bad positions; rather, shouldn’t we encourage them to change their positions?

Last, let me offer one caveat: this doesn’t mean that I ram my views down my students’ throats. As I noted a few posts back, a Catholic student, a conservative evangelical student, and an atheist student all thanked me for doing such a great job teaching my New Testament course. If I was just ramming my views down their throats that wouldn’t have happened.

But I can promise you that I did not just “teach the debate” on all the controversies we touched upon.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    May 21, 2009 11:06 pm

    If we’re going to “teach the debate” when it comes to the creation of the universe, then we need to let the Jains get in there:

    “Some foolish men declare that creator made the world. The doctrine that the world was created is ill advised and should be rejected.

    If God created the world, where was he before the creation? If you say he was transcendent then and needed no support, where is he now?

    How could God have made this world without any raw material? If you say that he made this first, and then the world, you are faced with an endless regression.

    If you declare that this raw material arose naturally you fall into another fallacy, For the whole universe might thus have been its own creator, and have arisen quite naturally.

    If God created the world by an act of his own will, without any raw material, then it is just his will and nothing else — and who will believe this silly nonsense?

    If he is ever perfect and complete, how could the will to create have arisen in him? If, on the other hand, he is not perfect, he could no more create the universe than a potter could.

    If he is form-less, action-less and all-embracing, how could he have created the world? Such a soul, devoid of all morality, would have no desire to create anything.

    If he is perfect, he does not strive for the three aims of man, so what advantage would he gain by creating the universe?

    If you say that he created to no purpose because it was his nature to do so, then God is pointless. If he created in some kind of sport, it was the sport of a foolish child, leading to trouble.”

    —–

    I have had plenty of professors who ask us our opinions on certain issues–it comes up a lot in my education courses–and they do it without really hinting at what their own beliefs might be. The problem is that we as students have not been equipped with the critical thinking skills needed to analyze the information presented to really come to a decision about things like charter schools, merit pay, and high-stakes testing. If you just give us a list of “pros” and a list of “cons,” they’ll usually end up canceling each other out if we aren’t equipped to grapple with what they’re really saying (and your previous posts on what rhetoric “says” vs. what rhetoric “accomplishes” really helps in that regard); that is, we don’t understand what the social effects of such-and-such educational policy might be, who believes these things, who benefits from them, what social conditions give rise to them (neoliberalism and charter schools, or union-busting and merit pay, for example), and so on. Instead we have a textbook with a “pro” argument and a “con” argument which go out of their way to be as depoliticized and decontextualized as possible.

  2. John permalink
    May 21, 2009 11:09 pm

    …and that depoliticization goes hand-in-hand with the liberal desire for “balance” and “bipartisanship” in all things, the search for the “rational” middle ground.

    Sorry if the above ramble didn’t make sense; I broke my toe today and the pill I took has got me simultaneously drowsy and insomniac, so I’m pretty fuzzy.

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 22, 2009 12:14 pm

    Hi John, that’s not rambling at all. I agree 100%. The issue of depoliticization and the appeal to “balance” are central to this, I think!

  4. May 26, 2009 1:52 am

    It just bugs me that in every class which has involved the “enlightenment” I have gotten really bad marks.
    I admit, I hate the enlightenment, I am an evil reactionary luddite, I also admit this may have effected my motivation to read books that basically went “OMG the enlightenment was the greatest thing ever and all those nasty reactionaries and romantics were just pissy because they were too stupid to lurve progress which in unequivocally good and if you disagree its because you like the idea of starving and degraded people” – but …ehh… ok it was my fault.
    Dunno where I was going with that.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 26, 2009 11:49 am

    First, let me say that this made me laugh out loud.

    Second, let me ask: were you drunk when you wrote this?

  6. May 26, 2009 1:29 pm

    Not drunk but unsuccessfully trying to become non-nocturnal. Sleep deprivation messes with the mind.

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