Class discussions need civil debate

Do you ever walk out of a discussion-based class feeling as though you just walked off the set of an afternoon talk show rather than a classroom of higher learning?
In one of my humanities courses last week, the class embarked on one of these heated and fruitless discussions. First of all, due to a lack of focus, this particular discussion veered wildly from one tangent to another.
The class began talking about America’s tendency to impose its technological culture onto developing nations. A hapless fellow in the class wondered if that was possibly a good thing for the developing countries, and he was barraged with sighs and snickers from the offended. He got a little red-faced, and said nothing for the remainder of the class.
Then, the class strayed to the issue of overpopulation. Another guy mentioned he had heard that the population was exploding exponentially in the poorest regions of the world, and many people think this should be stopped. Once again, like the Jerry Springer show, the audience stirred with visible and audible objection. And of course, he was given his verbal punishment. “I really, really hope you didn’t mean that,” chided a member of the moral police.
Comments like these stifle class discussions, because people generally shy away from personal confrontation. In my mind, good class discussions occur when people can freely share and debate ideas without worrying about the looming threat of personal lambaste.
One main source of the problem is our tendency to presuppose an enemy–the classic, “us vs. them” mentality.
“Darn liberals, always so easily offended.” Or, “Those redneck conservatives, always so blind to other people’s cultures.”
Though most people feel strongly about certain issues, there are assumptions almost everybody shares, which lie at the heart of any issue. In order for a discussion to flourish, these common assumptions, or common goals, should be recognized.
“Car accidents are bad,” is one such assumption. Let’s pretend that a certain “Bob” thinks that it would be wiser for everyone to go 45 mph instead of 80 mph. If he wants people to comply, Bob should not simply drive down the highway at 45 mph with his fist out the window, middle finger erect, for all the angry passersby to see. This is not very persuasive.
Instead, he should find a common ground. Not everyone agrees on what speed we should drive, but everyone in their right mind agrees that “car accidents are bad.” This is where Bob’s campaign should begin.
When we argue in class, instead of focusing on our differences first, I think it is more beneficial for the class to figure out the assumptions that almost everyone agrees on. This establishes clarity and helps eliminate emotional warfare.
Take the academic hot-button of overpopulation. The less politically correct person in the room thinks the governments of developing countries should bar families from having more than two kids. The more liberally minded person, maintains that placing such restrictions on families is totalitarian. In my class last week, the liberally-minded type exploded with “Oh, my God,” when the less politically correct type spouted his view.
Too often classroom discussions end up like the above scenario, with students focusing on their differences rather than searching for a common ground.
In class, nobody needs to be loud to be heard, and new laws aren’t going to be passed as a result of what’s being said. There’s no reason to get uppity about words spoken, even if those words are spoken by neo-Nazis. In fact, because we go to school to hone our analytical abilities, we should embrace the devil’s advocate. This prepares us for arguing effectively outside the classroom, where world problems become tangible, and where our words lead to action.
So I ask the moral police to keep their bigoted opinions to themselves, and instead learn to speak in a way that helps make for a decent educational experience for everyone.
If you are firmly committed to a belief, fine. But use your objectiveness in class as a tool to study the opposition. You can attack the chattering masses on the battleground of the world after class, not during class.

Rob Kusnia’s column appears every Tuesday. Send comments to [email protected]