Beyond Debate Club

| 2/17/2012 1:51:33 PM


While no parent wants a petulant, argumentative teenager, cultivating a skill set for feisty debate in secondary school may be the most effective way to ensure a reasoned adulthood.

Columbia University’s Deanna Kuhn, a psychology professor whose work in cognitive science and education was recently profiled by Miller-McCune, worries argument “based on substantive claims, sound reasoning, and relevant evidence” is dying out—yet, in our ever more complex world, is ever more crucial. How, she set out to uncover, could we foster a generation of rational, well-informed citizens to meet the challenges of tomorrow?

Though a geeky staple of secondary education, debate club was not the solution Kuhn investigated. Instead, she went meta. As in, metaphysical.

Kuhn’s subjects were mostly black and Latino students from a public middle school in Harlem, and all 48 were enrolled in a twice-weekly philosophy course for three years. Alongside the class’s curriculum, they researched and debated on controversial issues like animal rights and black market organ sales. “They often debated in pairs,” explains Burns, “not face to face, but online, in a sort of Socratic inquiry via Google Chat.”

Like all new material, the students didn’t initially “get” how to argue with nuance. Their topical stances, according to the article, lacked complexity. Many showed no interest in feedback from their instructors. But, “[b]y the end of year two,” the magazine reports, “they had developed a thirst for evidence.” The young philosophers competed in a year-end showdown structured more like a debate club match, where half-cocked arguments and one-sided perspectives didn’t fly.

Eric Baldwin
2/20/2012 6:47:54 PM

Even though my mother was an academic and my father was far from that but still maintained healthy curiosity about things in general, any type of argumentation was strictly out of the question while I was growing up. As I can see the merit of suppressing argument and not providing bait, especially to a moody teenager, as a way to keep the peace, it was substantially detrimental to my intellectual progress. I remember being an argumentative and inquisitive child who would ask questions, question anything anyone said, and debate any topic, and then I became someone who would refuse to speak in class, was afraid of my ideas, and steered away from debate or voicing opinions. The sudden suppression of healthy argumentation that occurred in my household caused subconscious avoidance of opinion based debate and made me associate argumentation negatively. Argumentation is not a bad thing! It is healthy, normal, and good for all people. It is only through argument, amongst teenagers or amongst public intellectuals, that lead to the questions that we attempt to answer in the academy at large. The open forum, discussion, and argumentation are a crucial aspect of basic intellectual cultivation and necessary in any discipline. Even though I've done alright for myself and I am scholar and able to argue today, the crackdown on argumentation that occurred in my household, and the refusal of my parents to engage at any level in intellectual discussion was harmful to my formation and took years to rectify. It is only through fleshing out ideas can one form reasonable and enlightened decisions. Today, after having a healthy argument with a colleague, I feel refreshed, invigorated, and my mind is clear because it gives me a chance to flesh out ideas and concepts that have been stored and unable to get out. To reasonable argumentation!

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