Several semesters ago, I experienced what I’m going to call the indoctrination of young Americans. No, I am not necessarily referring to a specific political indoctrination, though one of the examples I will describe below falls along a left/right political spectrum. Rather, I am talking about the odd absence of critical thinking skills among college-age (or transitioning high school/college) students, whether derived from a neutered public education system or something else entirely. What I’ve discovered through my teaching in Florida is a hard shift to ideological rigidity, by which students verbally or mentally refuse to consider the multiple sides of issues about which they have already developed an opinion.
I don’t want to suggest that this is an absolute ideological rigidity, though; there are always exceptions. However, when this rigid view of the issues rears its ugly head, it proves devastating to the ability to develop a relatively sound argument. In most cases, those with the most rigid ideological stances were less able to imagine counterarguments, even when the most obvious ones were available by a quick Google search, more likely to assert claims without evidence or reasoning, and less willing to engage with stances contrary to their own. Granted, what I’m saying is largely anecdotal, so take what I present here for what it is.
Example #1: Eating Dog Debate
I have a tendency to intentionally stick students in groups in which they have to argue positions with which I know they personally disagree. Part of the reason I do this is to force them to use their brains to consider the other side of the aisle, as such discussions are necessary, I think, to understand the complexities of any given position. It is also about respect. You cannot possibly have a civil debate if you are incapable of showing respect to the other side (where respect is reasonable, of course). In all fairness, my desire to have civil debates in class is born from my increasing disinterest in the quality of ordinary conversation about just about anything. Even when discussions about relatively pointless subjects spring up, such as which science fiction TV show is “the best,” the discourse surrounding that topic has a tendency to veer towards rhetorical violence. My class debates, unfortunately, have not helped instill confidence in me that civil discourse is possible as a norm. Anywho.
In this particular scenario, I put students into two groups: one would argue that eating dog was wrong, while the other would argue the opposite (they were reading this essay). One of my students emphatically said he would not take part in the debate because he thought eating dog was wrong. When I asked him why, he couldn’t say. That’s just what he thought. I pressed him further, and he still could not say. He just believed that eating dog was wrong. Only after I reminded him that I didn’t expect him to believe that eating dog is right by the end of the debate did this student reluctantly join in the discussion with his group.
The result of the debate was about what I expected after discussing the issue with that student. The group with the most people set against eating dog found it nearly impossible to imagine the counterargument about why eating dog might be a good idea (note: I don’t actually agree with this, but I can understand the arguments people make in favor of eating dog). They struggled with basic facts such as nutritional value, cultural differences, food taboos, and so on. The opposite group also struggled, but they were more ready to argue from cultural value than their pro-dog-eating counterparts. After all, when you get right down to it, dogs serve all manner of purposes in our society, even beyond the basic function as a companion species. But they are also food sources in many parts of the world; as Foer notes in his essay (see above), we willingly exterminate millions of dogs every year, which means their potential nutritional value is wasted. But the pro-eating-dog group couldn’t think about these issues, though the anti-eating-dog group had its own problems (responding to arguments with emotion-driven claims). But because the who was tasked with exploring the value of dog as a potential food product couldn’t argue the position with which they were tasked, they lost the debate by a mile.
Example #2: Drilling for Oil
In another case, I put the same class of students into two groups: one arguing that we should drill for oil in state parks, and one arguing the exact opposite. This time, I intentionally stuck people into groups where they would be arguing from their own position on the issue, though there were a couple of students who didn’t care either way.
The result? Pretty much the same thing. When challenged by their opponents on the matter of the environment, the pro-drilling group seemed unwilling to recognize the valid points lodged against them. Instead, they repeated the same claim over and over or dodge the question entirely. They had no response to the very real problem posed by drilling in general — namely, that it does not have a track record of safety, and so assurances that damage to public parks would be kept to a minimum fell on deaf ears. The anti-drilling group, however, didn’t have a response to the legitimate concern regarding the economy. They were certain that the nation would simply have to find other means of producing energy and that this could be achieved without any serious impact on the economy. When it was pointed out to this group that we had already reached a point at which a slow shift toward renewable fuels would be impossible, they resorted to the dodging/repetitive tactics.
The latter group won the debate, largely because they backed up their claims with evidence more often than their opponents. However, both groups demonstrated a degree of intransigence that made debating the actual issues somewhat impossible. Neither group was willing concede that the other might have a point or that we might actually have to address these issues to avoid simplistic solutions to real-world problems. And that stubbornness, I think, produces an environment where honest discussion is not possible. Just as in the first example, when it came time to think from the perspective the other side, both groups ran into a wall.
…which brings me to my last example:
Example #3: The Israel-Palestine Allegory (w/ Aliens)
I’ve talked about my science fiction allegory lesson plan before. The great thing about this particular debate-style lesson is its ability to turn otherwise peaceful individuals into imperialists when the mix of students is “just right.” I think this has more to do with the fact that I never tell them this is an Israel-Palestine allegory until after the debate has ended, thus giving them a little more freedom to roleplay.
I won’t talk too much about the details of this particular lesson; however, I will say that when the student composition is less optimal (made up of more politically withdrawn or sometimes socially conservative individuals, in the broadest sense), the debate doesn’t go well. Part of the problem with the setup is it requires students to consider the political and social implications of what they’re saying. In the less optimal groups, the group playing faux-Palestine frequently falls prey to a game of concessions, while the faux-Israel group largely remains fixed in its imperialist position. Nobody seems capable of or willing to consider that the opposing arguments are frequently inadequate to the task of assuring the faux-UN that violence will be curtailed by planethood. This happened when I first ran the debate, too, though it was the faux-Israelis who fell aparter after having been walked into a rhetorical trap by the faux-Palestinians — in desperation, the faux-Israelis doubled down on the imperialist rhetoric (“we own you”).
While I love running this little experiment, I do find it quite troubling how easy it is for students to fall into prescribed roles when the parameters allow for it. It doesn’t occur to some of them that what they’re actually saying is quite disturbing, or that they are failing to address the very real problems set before them in an attempt to “hold the line.” This goes to the problem with debates in general: that we assume debates are about “winning” in some assured, absolute sense, and not about honest discussion of the issues and the subsequent potential for knowledge transmission. The only real win in a valid debate is the recognition that both sides have something worthwhile to contribute, and the real solution lies somewhere between A and B (not always, obviously). So instead of negotiating as a means for getting to a peaceful solution, the faux-Israelis and faux-Palestinians either play a win/lose game OR fall into the trap of their prescribed roles.
Unfortunately, this is so common in my experience that trying to address it within the context of a composition class is difficult. There is only so much time to point out that you have to address counterpoints in a proper argument, and you must do so respectfully and reasonably. The desire seems to be to hone in on one’s particular position, protect it like dogma, and reject anything that might threaten the purity of the position, whatever it may be. And that’s not good for the development of debating skills, since it precludes the possibility of honest discussion between people who don’t agree. Without that discussion, individuals are easily trapped within their own rhetoric (a charge lobbed against people of either political stripe who only watch one right/left news network — the bubble, as it were). I’m not suggesting that one must concede points to the other side by default; there is such a thing as an invalid counterargument, after all. Rather, these teaching experiences have made me think that perhaps what will help us most is a good dose of basic argumentation and logic from the formative writing years on. If you make ideological hard stances an impossibility in the daily function of our language, then you neuter the desperation to maintain the line. You create a better dialogue.
There are a lot of other examples I could talk about, but I’ve gone on long enough here. Now it’s your turn. You may not teach people, but you certainly interact. How do you see ideological rigidity operating in your daily life?