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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What's an Argument? Bring Back Debate Club

When I was in high school, there was an active debate club that competed with all the area high schools. If successful, our team could compete at regional, state and even national events. At the time, it was one of many extracurricular opportunities whose presence I took for granted. Now the arts are gone, recess is replaced by test prep drills, and most extracurricular activities vanish if candy bar or gift wrap sales disappoint. Debate club was one of the first to go by the wayside.

So it is no wonder that recent research on the place of argument in the school curriculum shows that students cannot even define the term, much less formulate an opinion about it. A whole generation of students has grown up thinking “argument” means nothing more than a verbal quarrel, either to be avoided or won, usually by voice volume rather than persuasive points.

Not only are the students clueless, but according to Gerald Graff, so are their teachers.

Graff: I think cluelessness in academia is a major threat to democracy, especially at a moment when talk-back radio, Cable TV talk shows, the Internet, and the reliance of politicians on opinion-polling have made a certain kind of public debate—even if it’s debate within narrowly constrained parameters—more immediately important in American and global politics. In these conditions, one needs not only an ‘informed’ citizenry, but a citizenry that’s sophisticated enough in weighing arguments to spot logical contradictions and non-sequiturs, not to mention outright lies.

Students are not getting an education in argument, and do not miss what they never had. Schools have abandoned critical thinking while the proliferation of so-called critical thinking materials notwithstanding.

Graff: You’re right that many students don’t miss an initiation into the intellectual world of whose very existence they never even learn. No, I don’t see as much concern within academia over this problem as I think there should be. I think we’ve gotten accustomed to a system in which the very few excel in school (and reap the rewards in the vocational world beyond) and the many stumble along and more or less get by, or get through, or fail.

Graff's reason for the apathy is a classic example of the sort of educational obstructionism that pervades our society. We only need a few well-educated elites. There are not enough slots for everyone else.

In some ways such a system suits us academics—it’s not our fault if the majority stumble or fail, we can easily say, that’s just the way it is; only an elite in any society is going to ‘get’ the intellectual club, etc.

Who does Graff blame? Not the parents. The popular weasel strategy of blaming the parents conveniently forgets the fact that parents have to be educated first.
Insofar as this is a common academic attitude, I blame academics more than parents, whom it’s also our job to educate, after all.

Somehow most of our college students are missing out on what should be the goal of their education—becoming a well-informed, thinking citizenry. best I was reaching 15-20 percent of the students in an average undergraduate class and that the remaining 80-85 percent were in some other country or time-zone. Comparing notes with colleagues over the years led me to conclude that most felt the same way. Some unashamedly said they teach to that top 15-20 percent and figure there’s no point worrying about the others.

I have had the same experience. Whereas I was able to persuade just about every member of my junior high and high school classes to buy into my program and reach previously unattainable levels of achievement, I found my college classes to be far more resistant. Some of my college students said straight out, “We don't want to know how or why the math works. Just tell us how to get the answer.” Combine the students' attitude with the new consumer, so-called student-centered approach to education, and there we have a recipe for a generation of ill-educated college graduates.

Professors who refuse to bow to student demands and try to educate the unwilling regardless of their resistance risk unfavorable student evaluations. Professors who respond to market conditions fare much better, and thereby effectively “purchase” great student evaluations. Twenty years down the road, I wonder how many students of the first professor will be grateful for the gift and sorry for their evaluations, and how many students of the second professor will feel they have been royally gypped.

There is a reason, grasshoppers, why I have the big desk and you have the little ones.

Can you imagine a college class where thew books of Ann Coulter Michael Moore are required reading? Dr. Graff can.

I can imagine a good course in which students would read Coulter and Moore for starters and then move on to more nuanced and complicated texts on the same set of issues.

Graff would like a chance to test his ideas.

Take five sections of freshman composition at a university and teach them using the ‘argument templates’ discussed extensively in Clueless and other methods for demystifying academic culture. Closely monitor the writing done by the students over the course of the semester or year, and compare their work with that produced by a randomly-chosen control group of a different five sections of the same course. I like to think the results would dramatically bear out my claims. If they didn’t it would be back to the drawing-board for me.

Yet he observes sadly that universities seem unconcerned about product beyond job training.
But it’s symptomatic of the incuriosity of higher education about what students actually get out of college that one never hears about such experiments even being tried.

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