Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Exactly What Things Were Made For

LADY BRACKNELL: I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing.
I just finished reading the new edition of James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Taught Me, and I feel both inspired and infuriated by the experience. Page 327:

Most teachers do not like controversy. A study some years ago found that 92 percent of teachers did not initiate discussion of controversial issues, 89 percent didn’t discuss controversial issues when students brought them up, and 79 percent didn’t believe they should. Among the topics teachers felt children were interested in discussing but that most teachers believed should not be discussed in the classroom were the Vietnam War, politics, race relations, nuclear war, religion, and family problems such as divorce.

Many teachers are frightened of controversy because they have not experienced it themselves in an academic setting and do not know how to handle it. “Most social studies teachers in U.S. schools are ill prepared by their own schooling to deal with uncertainty,” according to Shirley Engle. “They are in over their heads the minute that pat answers no longer suffice.” Inertia is also built into the system: many teachers teach as they were taught. Even many college history professors who know well that history is full of controversy and dispute become old-fashioned transmitters of knowledge in their own classrooms.

… and so on. Not that I’m casting the first stone here. I’m not a teacher, and I don’t suppose that I’d be any braver about controversy in the classroom with my job on the line. And yet as a speaker on gay issues, I’ve been allowed to bring controversy into many college classrooms over the past three (nearly four) decades. (Much to the displeasure of some other gay people in my community, I should mention.) When our panels speak to education classes, especially, we encourage those future teachers to do exactly what, according to Loewen, most teachers don’t want to do. (Whether they do it when they become teachers is another question.)

So in some ways what Loewen wrote there surprised me. But on the other hand, not so much. Once I was on a panel speaking to a personal health class, and one of the students said she thought it was fair, if the majority in some community thought that gay people made unfit parents, for that community to take our children away from us. I asked her to look at it from another perspective: suppose the majority in some community thought that evangelical Christians, or Roman Catholics, made unfit parents – would she approve taking away their children? As I was saying this, I could see that she was upset by the suggestion, and there was rising tension among the other students too. Several of them, including the questioner, accused me of religious intolerance. One or two spoke up, pointing out that I was drawing an analogy, not actually advocating taking away people’s children. The instructor was unhappy too, and she sent an e-mail afterward to the colleague who usually moderates the panels, saying that I was too “combative.” Which I often am, of course, but not that time.

What bothered me about this incident was that the instructor, a graduate student, apparently couldn’t follow the analogy I was drawing. It isn’t exactly encouraging that most of a roomful of undergraduates had apparently never encountered such a form of argument before, but that it was new, and upsetting, to a graduate student, was disturbing.

Dealing with controversy, it seems to me, is a basic skill (or set of skills, probably) in a free society. But as I’ve noticed, and pointed out here before, it’s a basic skill that isn’t being taught, or learned. (A nice liberal fellow once told me that lower-class folks don’t need to think critically; I pointed out to him that they [we] vote, and they [we] shop -- tasks that require critical thinking to be done well. He hadn’t thought of that.) I know I didn’t learn how to analyze and debate in school; I absorbed these things from reading, especially political writing and scholarly publications. Often what I read taught me what not to do, but that’s okay too; like Gerald Graff, I’m a believer in the pedagogical and civic value of bad argument – but only so I can figure out how to answer and, hopefully, demolish it. Later on I found books that cover the subject, like Antony Flew’s How to Think Straight (2nd edition, Prometheus Books, 1998) and Alec Fisher’s The logic of real arguments (Cambridge University Press, 1988). From them I learned that I’d taught myself reasonably well, and that it wasn’t just my imagination that I’d learned something valuable – or that most people hadn’t.

Often, when I’ve engaged in debate in various online fora, I’ve been chided for doing it in an inappropriate place. (In the movie Love and Death, newlyweds Diane Keaton and Woody Allen are in bed on their wedding night. He puts his hand on her breast; she says, “Please – not here.”) I always ask what is an appropriate place, so I can go there. I don’t think anyone has ever recommended an alternative, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually carried out a dispute in a forum that wasn’t, in fact, intended for serious discussion. It’s just that so many people are uncomfortable with disagreement, either directed at their opinions or at anyone else’s. I was taught while growing up that politics, religion, and sex weren’t discussed in polite company, so I began looking for impolite company where such things could be discussed. It’s mighty hard to find.

The standard explanation for the embargo on these topics is that people get emotional about them. True enough; but these are also topics that centrally concern people, so shouldn’t they learn to analyze and discuss them anyway? If these things can’t be discussed, what happens is that decisions are made and people’s lives are affected without any discussion, often with unpleasant consequences for those affected. The ban on discussion seems not to extend to abusive and inflammatory outcries, witch hunts, and the like. The undesirable elements are suppressed, the better sort of people can sniff derisively at the vulgar canaille who did the dirty work, and all’s right with the world. I’ve also found that the people who take this line are quite happy to attack me, or other people whose views or lives they dislike, even in polite company. It’s only when I defend myself effectively that they back down and try to stop what they started but couldn’t finish. The trouble is that even the most vicious bullies get sympathy from polite company if making trouble backfires on them.

So, once again I’m confronted with my own idealism and naiveté. What disturbs me about teachers’ unwillingness to deal with controversy, is that schools are exactly the kind of place where people should learn to disagree with one another without panicking. Many teachers are frightened of controversy because they have not experienced it themselves in an academic setting and do not know how to handle it” – what an indictment of American universities! If not there, where? If not now, when?

JACK: Well, I won't argue about the matter. You always want to argue about things.

ALGERNON: That is exactly what things were originally made for.

JACK: Upon my word, if I thought that, I'd shoot myself . . .