Yawning Through the Outrage

There are a lot of things out there that generate tons of outrage that do about zero to work me up.  A good example is the recent kerfuffle over a school district assigning kids a debating assignment to argue both sides of the question "Was there actually a Holocaust?"

Certainly this was a fairly boneheaded topic to choose for such an assignment out of the universe of potential topics.   But I will say that this assignment is the type of thing that should be done a LOT more in schools, both in primary schools and in higher education.  Too often we let students make the case for a particular side of an argument without their even adequately understanding the arguments for the other side.  In some sense this brings us back to the topic of Caplan's intellectual Turing test.

I did cross-x debate all the way from 6th grade to 12th.  There is a lot to be said for the skill of defending one side of a proposition, and then an hour later defending the other (that is, if cross-x debate had not degenerated into a contest simply to see who can talk faster).

I remember a few months ago when a student-producer called me for a radio show that is produced at the Annenberg School at UCLA USC.   She was obviously smart and the nature of her job producing a political talk show demanded she be moderately well-informed.  She had called me as a climate skeptic for balance in a climate story (kudos there, by the way, since that seldom happens any more).  Talking to her, it was clear that she was pretty involved in the climate topic but had never heard the skeptic's argument from an actual skeptic.  Everything she knew about skeptics and their positions she knew from people on the other side of the debate.  The equivalent here are people who only understand the logic behind Democrat positions insofar as they have been explained by Rush Limbaugh -- which happens a lot.   We have created a whole political discourse based on straw men, where the majority of people, to the extent they understand an issue at all, only have heard one side talking about it.

I think the idea of kids debating both sides of key issues, with an emphasis on nudging them into trying to defend positions that oppose their own, is a great process.  It is what I do when I teach economics, giving cases to the class and randomly assigning roles (ie you are the guy with the broken window, he is the glazier, and she is the shoe salesman).  The problem, of course, is that we have a public discourse dominated by the outrage of the minority.  It would take just one religious student asked to defend abortion rights or one feminist asked to defend due process rights for accused rapists to freak out, and the school would probably fold and shut down the program.

Which is too bad.  Such discourse, along with Caplan's intellectual Turing test, would be centerpieces of any university I were to found.  When we debated back in the 1970's, there was never a sense that we were somehow being violated by being asked to defend positions with which we didn't believe.  It was just an excersise, a game.  In fact, it was incredibly healthy for me.  There is about no topic I can defend better than free trade because I spent half a year making protectionist arguments to win tournaments.    I got good at it, reading the judge and amping up populism and stories of the sad American steel workers in my discourse as appropriate.  Knowing the opposing arguments backwards and forwards, I am a better defender of free trade today.


  1. Morlock Publishing:

    Great post.

    One thing: it's "ideological turing test", not "intellectual".


  2. JKB:

    I was listening to Alan MacFarlane reading his 'How the World Works: Letters to Lily', specifically on "Does Education destroy Knowledge?". He pointed out education goes through phase of innovation and indoctrination. Most of us went to school in the latest increasing indoctrination phase. More emphasis on learning isolated facts by heart than helping the student learn to organize their thoughts and to make a detached evaluation of all the evidence. It is normal. The establishment universities in Britain (OxBridge) in the 17th century completely missed the development of the steam engine as in their teachings all was already known. The steam power/Industrial Revolution was left to outcasts who attended alternative universities or were in trades due to their religious beliefs.

    But back to the issue at hand. Education has increasingly migrated toward what the student can regurgitate rather than true education (the discipline of the intellect, the establishment of the principles, and the regulation of the heart). Most likely due to the emphasis on the "test of lower order thinking for the lower orders", multiple choice testing introduced in the run up to WWI, from which the SAT is almost an exact copy. (BTW, 2014 is the centennial of the introduction of this test (1914)). With such testing, which mostly can only test tacts not reasoning, the balance between knowledge and how to study shifted toward reproduction of facts and away from independent thought. The current "sage on the stage" methodology also reinforces this trend.

    So in the past, studying certain texts was used to induce in the student ways of disciplining their intellect. But many teachers were unaware of this facet and so tested for isolated facts which as they were what was tested became the focal point of "education". This added fuel to those who seek to use schooling as indoctrination. Freedom of thought become anathema in schools reinforced by teacher disapproval and peer attacks on those who were "smart".

    The loss of real debate programs in school is a consequence since debate implies there is no "right" way.

    I am surprised with the rise of reality TV, even the fact regurgitation of "Are you Smarter than a 5th grader" we have seen something along the lines of a debate program. "Can you out Debate an 11th Grader". Debate wars, etc. Even leaving aside convincing on the topic and judging on debate skills would probably make good TV. And perhaps force those in politics to upgrade their performances.

  3. FelineCannonball:

    WWII optimist? Man-made catastrophic Holocaust denier?

    It seems to me that debate class often just reinforces the concept that objectivity is over-rated or impossible and that reality can be subjugated by word constructions. There are other ways to reinforce concepts of skepticism, questioning, logic, uncertainty.

  4. Jos Bannister:

    Americans have perfected the art of being insulted, peeved or indignant. It like watching balloons in thumb-tack factory.

    Bu try this: Should not the USA at least study the ramifications of standing down one-half of our armed forces?

    Would we be invaded? If not, isn't military spending a huge waste of money?

    Suddenly, the right-wing is not longer open-minded...

  5. NL7:

    A nice trick for instruction in the ideological turing test would be to ask the students to write arguments in favor of an issue, something they actually agree with. Then require all of them to write another one taking the opposite position. It may also be helpful to have the other students later review each pair of arguments, to see if they can tell which one the writer actually believed. This latter part may be tinted by the bias of the readers, if they have any.

    You could also have in-class debates where students are assigned a topic and a position and must research and defend that position in an in-class brief debate (no rebuttal or cross, just two constructions). Older students could be required to learn about an issue and be prepared to debate either side with only ten or fifteen minutes of prep (i.e. they have to research an issue before class with an eye to arguing either side).

  6. treeher:

    I remember taking a graduate course in communications law and was just overwhelmed with the volume of reading it required. Literally thousands of pages. Going into the mid-term exam, I was fairly confident with my understanding of the concepts, case law, etc. Well, the exam turned out to be mostly multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions ... not a single essay question. The lazy instructor literally selected sentences and paragraphs from these thousands of pages and inserted blanks which we were expected to accurately fill. Of course I expressed my displeasure afterwards with no effect.

    Today I see "Common Core" being pushed down parents' throats in many states through Bill Gates's promise of millions of $ to the schools and counties. Teachers are measured not on what their students learn but on how well those students can parrot back the indoctrinated curriculum. Instead of learning about Washington and Jefferson, we explore the impact of Black poets during the Revolution. Instead of learning about the content of the Declaration and Constitution, we find out how oppressed the women were in colonial America.

    Sometimes the counter argument is so banal and offensive that it does not merit an equal place with fact and common sense.

  7. Craig Loehle:

    9th grade debate club, we had to debate both sides of the Vietnam war, while we were in the midst of it. People had some guts back then.

  8. irandom419:

    I imagine most of the Holocaust denier sites like strmfront.org and rdioislam.org(both intentionally misspelled) are blocked at school due to being hate sites. I can't think of any legitimate books that would cover such a topic.

  9. DirtyJobsGuy:

    The use of a "current affairs" topic is often a plaything for the instructor. Just like high school theater groups always produce things like "Rent" as provocation, this is an unnecessary flourish. There are plenty of challenging topics that could provide a real education without the in-your-face lefty emphasis. Unionized public school teachers unfortunately do this all the time since they can't be called to task. (Don't get me started on the gay mafia in the choral and arts faculty, if I have to listen to another broadway show tune collection from the high school choral I'll hang myself). Public schools have to exercise some element of discretion and professionalism to keep the public's faith. A better topic would be to debate FDR's state departments limitation of refugee visa's to European jews (well below the existing immigration quotas in many countries).

  10. W. C. Taqiyya:

    Holocaust? What holocaust? But seriously, not many people under the age of 50 or 60 are even aware of that event. So, it's probably a good thing to debate. I vote we decide it never happened. I mean, we all voted to believe that Cuban medical care is the best in the world, so why not? I also choose to believe that women are an oppressed minority. Never mind, the rest of the country already beat me to that one.

  11. Richard:

    If you want to teach kids to debate both sides of the argument, you could choose also a less controversial topic.