Fetishizing campus debate
There are more productive ways to think about running a classroom
Earlier this week the topic for the day on twitter was an essay in the NY Times written by a senior at the University of Virginia: I Came to College Eager to Debate. I Found Self-Censorship Instead.
I am not going to engage with the essay itself, because it became apparent on day two and day three of the topic that while people agreed in principle that it was fine to…uh…debate the claims, they disagreed about the criteria for criticism.1 My hope is that a professor who has a couple of decades of experience managing classroom discussions might be able to contribute some insights about what makes those discussions work well.
I want to examine the fetishization of debate as an ideal to aspire to on college campuses. Think of “debate” as a metaphor both for how we run our classrooms and what sort of university we want. I think it’s a bad one. It misses broader threats to speech. Adopted from politics and debating societies, the central purpose of debate is not to cultivate knowledge but persuade your audience and defeat your opponent. It doesn’t reflect the realities of teaching, and may undermine the type of classroom that the pro-debate people say they want, where people feel free to challenge one another and learn something from the process.
Debating societies are a bad model for a classroom. Fun fact: the Oxford Union, the world’s most famous campus debating society, is not actually part of the University of Oxford.
Missing the bigger threats to speech
The NY Times has published a lot of opinion pieces about perceived threats to speech from the conservative side without an equivalent amount from the liberal side.
I noted this pattern in 2018.
This pattern continues even as the conservative threats to speech have become more serious, using state power to suppress speech of or about historically marginalized groups. The same day the Times piece was published the Tennessee House passed a bill that would allow students or staff to sue the school if they feel like unwillingness to accept divisive concepts led to them being punished. Maybe I am biased as a professor, but a law that allows students to sue a university when they don’t like their grade seems a tad misguided. One proposal included firing tenured faculty members if just two students complained. So much for debate!
Over the past few years these educational gag orders have become the norm. As of March 7, 56 such bills that would restrict speech in higher education were pending in state legislatures across the country according to Pen America.
Shouldn’t academics value debate? After all, Socrates embraced it.
The problem with Friedersdorf’s claim is not that cooperative argumentative dialogue is bad. It’s not, and it’s part of teaching, but it’s different from debate.
If you are reading about academia from the media, or on twitter, you would be under the impression idea that debating is a core function of universities, and any threat to debate strikes at the heart of our enterprise. Students spend their days debating one another, and then attend events where faculty or guest speakers do the same.
PSA from a professor: we don’t spend our days debating, and it would be a weird and unproductive use of our time in most cases.
I am taking the idea of fetishization from this thread, which is worth reading.
The thread points to something that has always jarred me. First, for most classes, debate does not occur because it is irrelevant to the class, which involves conveying some sort of technical knowledge. “I came to university ready to debate and the physics professor told me to quiet down” doesn’t make a lot of sense.
So we can agree that the “debate” debate only applies to a certain sliver of academia, which tend to be discussion based, and where interpretative perspectives matter to understanding the topic.2
Second, most students don't really want to debate, even in venues where it is appropriate, and even when they hold the dominant view. Students might volunteer their views, but do not want to get into an extended back-and-forth with other students. It’s uncomfortable, and generally not all that productive. Sometimes they worry about embarrassing themselves. This is a good thread on the topic.
Students also don’t want to get into a debate with their professor, and, trust me, in an era where professors are being accused of censoring students and risk turning up on some sort of watchlist, Campus Fix or Fox News, or even fired, professors have become increasingly cautious about correcting anything other than factual misstatements by their students. Whatever the intent, the last few year’s campus speech narrative and ensuing educational gag orders have decreased the chances that faculty will try to foster debate in the classroom. If you want debate, it would help to stop targeting professors whose views you disagree with.
Debate often doesn’t facilitate good discourse
I’m also just skeptical that debate is the right goal for campuses. It helps to understand that the pro-debate crowd don’t want debate, per se, but prefer an ideologically-driven debate, and more specifically, the acceptance of one ideological viewpoint as inherently valid in that debate.
My conviction comes from observing the limits of debate as a way of generating knowledge, as well as some observations of when discourse has worked really well in my classroom. (See also this piece by political science professor Seth Masket on structured learning).
First, the point of debate is not knowledge, but winning. It is to defeat your opponent. In actual formal debates the judge or audiences select a winner. Political debates are also intended to encourage the voter to choose one side or another. The point is not to convince your opponent, or generate new knowledge along the way, or consider pros and cons of different positions. Debates are especially bad at allowing empathetic position-taking where we can see the world through the eyes of another.
The tactics of good debaters are at odds with revealing knowledge. Tactics like speaking really quickly and sounding sure of yourself, telling others that your opponent is trying to mislead them, dubious rhetorical claims or overloading the listener with cherry-picked facts are intended to deceive the listener as much to enlighten them, to stop them from considering alternative arguments as serious.
Second, the least constructive forms of debates are tribal ones, where we are driven by our ideological starting points. A vast body of research on motivated reasoning shows we are unlikely to depart from our ideological priors. The more committed we are to our priors the more likely we are to dig-in. As an example, Julian Christensen and I undertook a study of the public and politicians in Denmark. We asked them to perform some simple puzzles where the objectively correct answer might challenge their prior conservative or liberal political beliefs. The more ideological they were, the more likely they were to get the puzzle wrong when the answer did not match with their priors.
Here is the interesting bit: we also tried to debias them. We used an old debiasing technique where if you make people justify faulty reasoning, they abandon their claim. This worked! But only for members of the public! Politicians dug into their original positions even more!
Why? Because politicians are the more seasoned debaters and committed ideologues. Facing a losing argument, many of us give up. But skilled ideologues have enough of a stock of knowledge and confidence in conveying it that they are able to come up with contrived rationalizations about how they were right after all. They will do this even in an anonymous experimental setting, where they are really only convincing themselves of the correctness of their claim. We also found that more experienced politicians hung onto their incorrect beliefs more than newly elected officials. Over the years, they had learned how to debate the facts in a way that reinforced their beliefs even when those beliefs were contrary to the facts.
Better forms of discourse
It would be easy to caricature my position as being anti-debate, so let me explain how I think about speech in my own classroom. My classes are seminar-based, usually with 20 graduate students, discuss how public organizations work, and touches on politics, important social policies and lots of real-life examples. So it’s a pretty good setting for debate.
As a professor, my goal in a class is not to have the liveliest debate, but to increase my student’s knowledge of a substantive area, and help them to sharpen their analytical skills about that topic. Discourse is part of that.
What does knowledge-driven discourse as an alternative to debate look like? At the start of every semester I ask students to describe good student participation. They always emphasize the importance of listening to others as a skill. Sometimes I have to push them, pointing out that they are often reluctant to disagree with each other. Then we talk about how to model good disagreement: being respectful, acknowledging points of agreement, separating the person from the argument. I tell them I will ask them at the end of the semester to grade their own participation based on these goals, and reflect on their speech in the classroom. In other words, we are purposefully talking about specific skills in discourse, and then the students are asked to hold themselves accountable for using those skills.
This strategy works for me, in that it generates better discourse than I think I would otherwise get. It requires more work on the part of the students, and to think more carefully about how they frame their statements. Some might call this self-censorship, but that misses the point.
For example, last summer I had a class that included both a lot of military officers and a lot of first-generation minority students. They generated an incredibly rich discourse, about the role of US power, and issues related to race and tolerance. They not just heard views they would not normally hear from peers, but actually listened. The discussion got better as the class went on, and students trusted each other more. Good discourse comes from a mutual place of trust rather than antagonism. You trust that you can say something boneheaded and that people will not hate you for it. We can ask students to do this anyway, but it can’t be forced. To some degree, trust must be earned.
I also saw students work harder to understand the perspective of others. They did this in how they framed their own statements (self-censorship again!) as well as how they responded to others, and how they followed up after the class. The purpose was not to defeat their opponent, but to better understand their classmate and their interpretation of the world.
We ended up getting what the pro debate people say they want: robust back and forth, featuring people with a variety of life experiences and ideological perspectives, and some actual lesson-learning in the process. But we took a different path to get there.
What I read as perfectly reasonable responses were accused of demonstrating intolerance, dunking on an undergraduate student, using their followers to attack her etc.
Oddly enough, conservatives who demand debate also tend to be most supportive of the academic domains where debate is not possible, like STEM, and most critical of the domains, such as humanities, philosophy and perhaps social sciences, where discourse is more useful.