Monday, January 2, 2017

Teaching Americans to Argue Civilly

             In a quietly inspiring story in the USA Today network of newspapers, Gabe Cavallaro tells how Meg Heubeck of the Center for Politics' Youth Leadership Initiative (UVa) "works with teachers nationally to help students respectfully deal with the divides of our society through civil discourse, debate[,] and compromise."

            From what I've seen in comment sections of articles on line, and based in 40 years teaching courses in rhetoric, "the art of ethical persuasion," I'll suggest a broader project.

            One of the reasons so much of our public discourse is uncivil is that too few Americans know how to put together an argument and therefore fall back on personal attack. (Too few Americans can argue well privately with a spouse or other family member or friend, which is a related issue.)

            For the last three generations, middle-class kids have gotten little practice arguing in contexts they care about. Their families have fewer children, and family dinners have become rare, so young children don't get supervised practice arguing with siblings, with feedback from parents on the order of "'Johnny is a doodie-head' is not an argument!" Older children aren't routinely shooed out of the house to organize their own games, and by the time they're teens moving toward adulthood, economically-privileged kids are trapped in what I've called "The Little-League Syndrome."

            Little League Baseball and similar organizations for other sports, and grammar school and high-school athletic teams, teach kids to play the sports well, and these adult-organized and coached sports have been excellent for father-daughter relationships. They have been bad, though, for allowing American kids opportunities to organize their own activities and learn how to persuade their peers.

            On a couple of occasions, my students were surprised to learn my age cohort really didn't have Little League when and where I grew up, but teenage boys had high school fraternities and social-athletic clubs and ran our own leagues. "It's not like we built the parks and playing fields," I told my students, but we did put together teams, arrange schedules, and, sometimes, had to decide what to do with some schmucks who'd embezzled the money the clubs had chipped in for trophies.

            And there were year clubs for boys and for girls that arranged social events.

            Poorer American kids still have gangs — which look to me authoritarian and led by adults — but current fashions in middle-class American parenting and school management seem to preclude kids' organizing their own activities.

            So, one thing that can be done to improve American discourse is for parents and other adults to teach children basic manners and insist on basic decency to others — including no bullying — and to draw back a bit at a time to allow older kids to run more of their own activities and have to persuade one another to do what they want them to do.

            Little League and such teaches kids how to fit into a bureaucracy and follow orders; kid-organized activities teach democratic organizing, which includes persuasion of peers on issues kids care about (and some activities that may legitimately horrify their parents and others in authority).

            The schools need to teach things kids may care less about: argument as a kind of summation of skills, but also description and definition and analysis and other "modes" of discourse. For a slogan for this kind of teaching, we used to have "Unplug the Scantron machines!": i.e., get rid of multiple-choice tests (as an ultimate goal) and have students write out present orally descriptions, extended definitions, analyses, and finally arguments.

            Logical thought isn't exactly natural, and kids need to be taught, and adults need to be reminded, how to use evidence and present a logical argument (if one with enough of an emotional appeal to get it accepted).

            And young adults and some older ones need to be taught how to debate with one another on matters for adults, and for citizens.

            This doesn't mean just pure politics, but — obviously! — issues in the sciences, including military science and tactics, history, theology, and the arts. And it means some training in the sort of deep analysis where you can figure out why political arguments so often go in circles.

            One reasons for a "failure to communicate": Different people often use the same key words with different meanings. E.g., if a human being is essentially a soul to be saved and "ensoulment" occurs at conception, then abortion may be worse than murder. If you're not big on theories of souls and/or if you think theological issues shouldn't enter American politics — then you'll have a different view on abortion (and we haven't even gotten to historical questions on control of women's bodies!). For another example, what do we mean by "patriot"? In 1969 or so, I told an FBI agent, "Mr. N_____ is a very patriotic young man" since Mr. N_____ started out in Marine ROTC, studied US warfare in Vietnam and decided it was wrong, dropped his plans for a military career, and joined the Peace Movement, actively opposing the war. Now that is a patriot, like John Kerry, only a bit earlier. The FBI agent may have had different ideas on patriotism and, indeed, might have thought my idea of a patriot his idea of a traitor.

            The sort of rough-and-ready analysis I just did requires training, and pulling it off in the real world requires practice — a lot of practice — in controlling one's temper and getting opponents to control theirs.

            Meg Heubeck is doing important and difficult work; she deserves a wide variety of support.

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