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A Plea to Faculty in Fall, 2017

I’ve argued that universities have deep resources to re-teach to society the importance of civil discourse among opposing viewpoints in a shared search for the truth (see here). Indeed, I believe they have a unique responsibility at this moment in history to act vigorously on this part of their societal role.

It occurs to me that, in every university class I have ever experienced, the course material presents alternative viewpoints on each topic. In science classes, for example, it is common to introduce current understanding of a phenomenon by illustrating the evolution of ideas as discoveries evolved over the decades. Students learn that what was accepted as truth at one point of time was overturned by the march of scientific progress. Usually, at moments of paradigm shifts, there were strong conflicts within the field. Exposing students to those conflicts and how they were resolved – first, with confrontation of opposing theories and then with resolution through new findings – is an important lesson.

In humanities courses, making interpretative judgments about textual or visual material are part of the learning process. The success of a single text in generating multiple interpretations is a testament to its richness, but students need to learn to dissect and debate alternative interpretations. Articulating the evidence for alternative interpretations is a key skill.

In social science courses, alternative theories that explain political, social, and economic behavior are the meat of the disciplines. Classes teach these alternative theories and debate their utility to explain “ground truth.” Learning the relative strengths and weaknesses of alternative theories is knowledge needed to “do” social science.

So what do faculty have to offer in a society where all visual and print media are displaying people shouting and roughing up each other over opposing viewpoints? How could classroom experiences teach skills that might help our students learn to be leaders in a world of strongly conflicting views?

Very minor tweaks to courses could have students engage the opposing viewpoints in the course material in an active way. These classroom exercises would teach exactly what the academy excels at – debate discourse that focuses on opposing ideas not opposing actors, that identifies the key ideas of the viewpoints that conflict, that requires evidence to be presented, and that requires the actors to honestly admit when they have no evidence to refute an argument.

Some of the students who come to us this fall have not witnessed, to any important degree, this type of discourse. It is not being generated by our current society in sufficient volume. We need to show them how it’s done.

Each of our classes could illustrate these norms of confrontation of opposing viewpoints. Involving the students actively in simulating these dialogues might act as a small step forward in our students learning the skills of civil discourse and honest shared dialogue in a common search for the truth.

Universities need to do all they can to model the behavior of civil discourse about conflicting ideas. But institutions are really just collections of individuals. All of us at Georgetown have a stake in this.

6 thoughts on “A Plea to Faculty in Fall, 2017

  1. I agree completely.

    This is what my SFS Freshman Seminar is about – titled “Spaniards and Indians in the Conquest,” we examine primary source materials from the conquistadores and from the side of the indigenous peoples affected.

    My purpose is to show to students how History is made – by looking at opposing viewpoints and coming to some analytical conclusions on the basis of good evidence. They will have to develop their own conclusions, based on primary evidence.

    This, one hopes, also gets students away from the false idea that most textbooks propagate that history is not conflictual – it is, after all, based on interpretation of multiple sources and subject to revision.

    These kinds of insights are more and more important, as in the public arena new fights about the meaning of history arise.

  2. Crucial, indeed, in these times of congealed opinions … If I reflect on the several decades of my teaching, I believe that a major stumbling block to initiating students to contradictory debate is not to tip-toe around what some see as a sort of semi-sacred inviolability of subjectivity, as soon as ” values ” are brought into the discussion. It is surely important to allow different members of a class to ” have their say “, but it is a false sort of respect to simply let each statement spring forth and then waft away untouched or unchallenged. Encouraging a student to further unpack what they just said, as in : ” How do I know that is true ? “, is a service to all, providing it is done congenially, with an eye to simply advancing the debate and not to notching up one’s intellectual belt …

  3. I couldn’t agree more with how vital this is. I feel more fortunate than ever in these times that the embodied work of performance that I teach and practice exposes students to the skills of, quite literally, stepping into the shoes of another. Students seem more inclined than ever, even starved for, tools to engage these practices with empathy and an appropriate sense of “re-spect” – in the fullest etymological sense of that word, highlighting the profound opportunity “to look again.” This work is not for experts or virtuosos alone but has a communal ethos and can be practiced by all, and the stakes and opportunities seem greater in this new school year than at any other time in my decades of teaching. Grateful for this forceful and articulate plea…

  4. I am on board. One of my concerted efforts is to assist students in recognizing the “undefended assertion.” I begin by emphasizing that “undefended assertions” are all we hear, with which we are immersed, in our sound bite culture.

    Example: Raising the minimum wage kills jobs.

    We hear the mantra, but never any reasons or evidence.

    I noticed the prevalence in the essays the students submitted for the First-Year Author workshop. “The author structured the novel brilliantly.” Full stop.

    So I brought that up with my discussion group. And when a student in the group would make such a claim aloud, I would add “because. . . . ” or “by doing. . . .”

    If nothing else, a student who becomes accustomed to recognizing the undefended assertion may start asking more from our political leaders who rely on them.

  5. The skill that seems most in absent from the contemporary scene is the one involved in listening to what the other participant is saying, so that part of the academic process probably needs to be emphasized. It almost goes without saying that this is what we do as teachers, but it is nonetheless very helpful to have it explicitly set forth as part of our mission and as being urgently needed at present. Thanks for your leadership.

  6. E pluribus unum is hard work. As Broadway composer Richard Rogers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II once observed about its antithesis, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

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