The art of discussion

1

voltaire-quotes-fools-chainsBack in the early mid-80’s I went to a little school in Central Pennsylvania called Penn State. You might of heard of it. Then, like now, I loved nothing more then a healthy debate. My father used to say I would take the opposite position on anything just to argue. There is probably quite a bit of truth in that statement. At Penn State I found a wonderful debate partner.

Penn State Alumni are quite familiar with the Willard preacher. Gary has been berating people with his version of fire and brimstone for probably 30 years. There is no shortage of people turned off by the Willard preacher, but for me he was the perfect foil. If you engaged him, he would happily engage you all night long and many nights I would take advantage of this willingness.

I spent hours going point/counter point with him. The beautiful thing was he knew his stuff, so he made you learn your stuff and be able to defend it. Some folks may disagree, but with me his rebuttals rarely became personal. If they did, I would call him on it and he did the same to me. See it was all about the argument and the ideas contained within it. He made me think harder and research better and for that I will always consider him a major component  of my secondary education.

After college I gravitated to tending bar for a living. People used to tell me, there’s two things you never discuss at a bar, religion and politics. I broke that rule every shift I worked. It was not uncommon to come in for a happy hour and find one corner of the bar discussing the Old Testament while another debated the effects of minimum wage. The only rule was that you had to argue the argument not the person. What a novel concept huh?

That’s a concept we seem to have lost sight of. Anymore the counter argument always seems to be about the personality instead of the position. Take for example the Common Core argument. . Side A takes the position that it will take education deeper instead of wider. Side B counters with questions about it being developmentally inappropriate. Side A counters with the argument that anyone who doesn’t support Common Core is ill informed and paranoid. Side B comes back with, all Common Core supporters are trying to do is make money off of our kids and then things escalate.

Where does this leave us? We still don’t know if CC will indeed take instruction deeper. It is still not clear if it is developmentally inappropriate. Yet we hold on to our theories as if we’ve actually proven something and the best part is we don’t even have to do any more research because why would we stoop to arguing with nuts and crooks? We can safely hold on to our position without having to waste any more time on the subject. After all, we are all much to busy to really concern ourselves with nuances.

debate-picThe problem with not concerning ourselves with the nuances, involves a lack of self evaluation. Learning can’t take place without self evaluation. When we self evaluate effectively we compare the tenets that we’ve accepted, with the tenets being presented and either accept or discard one. Whatever the result we are left with a stronger conviction. Without this component we are just building a house based on sand.

That discarding of previous “facts” can be the most painful part of a debate but how else do you grow if you don’t slough off old skin and take on new skin. Loving the art of learning eases this pain because it doesn’t focus on the “being wrong” part, but rather the process itself. I’ve always loved this process and to be honest with you, if you can prove your arguments superior I’ll readily embrace your argument. Now remember though you have to prove your arguments to me not yourself.

I used to stress to my step-daughter the importance of having people in your life that held beliefs counter to your own. The best way to know if your beliefs are truly worthy of being held is to be forced to defend them against a counter argument. If you can’t effectively describe and defend these beliefs, perhaps they shouldn’t be your beliefs. That is the point of discussion, to arrive at beliefs that are based on a thorough vetting. Sadly, this has become a lost art.

It is an art I would encourage people to rediscover. Listen to people’s arguments. Think about them. If necessary counter their arguments. Listen to their counter. Attack the idea if necessary but not the author. Give them the benefit of considering that they may have spent as much time crafting their argument as you have crafting yours. It’s all so simple but so rarely practiced. That’s why we live in the cacophony that we now find ourselves in.

I always find it interesting to hear people say, “Why don’t we just all get along.” “If everyone would just compromise.” I disagree. I think we need to debate more, but let’s make it real discourse. Let’s listen to counter arguments, and if they truly are not stronger then yours, fight for your convictions like a mother would for her child, but if they are, modify. Its the only way we can truly arrive at best practice. Whether presented by a nut, a kook, a racist, a conspiracy theorist or any of the other slanders we like to throw around, a good concept is a good concept. It doesn’t care who voices it. By the same token, a bad idea can be countered by a strong idea, it doesn’t need to attack the presenter.

th9WFVUNYCThis is a concept I try to practice in my daily life. I’ve gone to lunch or interacted with just about any education reformer who will accept my invitation. There’s been very little common ground discovered but I can say all the experiences were enjoyable. I can also say that the discussions have lead to a deeper understanding of my beliefs. Hopefully some of them will continue to meet with me and some will bring arguments I haven’t considered. Because in the end, for me, its all about the conversation.

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One comment on “The art of discussion

  1. Krishna says:

    This applies to discussion on any topic. We need to be willing to debate all sides with facts and stop name calling, marginalizing and dismissing. Great piece.

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