Location: St. Vincent & Grenadines

You were driving home in the dark on one glass-slippered heel, window sliced open and bathing in the snowliquor of the night air. We heard you singing, and couldn't bear to wake you.

21 July 2005

Our conversations are like minefields: no one's found a safe way through one yet.

My friend Scot came by the other day. I like Scot for many reasons, one of which is that he’s opinionated and articulate and likes to argue. Or rather, likes to argue in a certain way that I also enjoy. Scot’s worldview is sufficiently different from mine that we disagree on all sorts of issues, which means that there’s always plenty for us to discuss. We also agree on enough other things to make friendship and mutual goodwill possible, which is a nice basis to have before beginning an argument.

I realized yet again as we talked — I forget what about — that the reason I enjoy arguing with Scot is that the process gives me a chance to test out my own ideas and beliefs about the world. Often Scot will challenge my assumptions, many of which I’ve never realized were assumptions, and inspire me to think differently because of the new perspective he’s given me.

Just as often, I’ll find that his challenge has helped me to reconfirm what I already believe. Perhaps refine it. A few times, I think I’ve even managed to change Scot’s mind. He’s a tough customer, but he plays fair.

Something else I realized that day is that my approach to argument is not really one of competition. There is an element of struggle built into most dialogue of this kind, and it can be invigorating, but it isn’t necessary. When I argue, winning and losing are not really what’s important. It may seem like I win an argument when I get you to agree with me, but haven’t you also won? You’ve changed your mind and you now see things differently, but it’s still your mind and your choice. You haven’t lost anything. You’ve gained a new perspective, added it to your previous experiences.

All the ego stuff around wanting to be smarter than someone else, or feeling shame for believing something dumb, is just a distraction. The only truly stupid decision is to avoid examining your beliefs.

If what you think is true is strong enough, it will withstand the scrutiny of a critical eye. Perhaps you’ll get to appreciate more fully just how strong it is. Or perhaps you will see cracks in the façade, problems with your reasoning, maybe small ones, or maybe grand systemic flaws that require you to scrap the whole idea and start fresh. Question yourself. Question everything.

I want to bring this way of thinking into my classroom next year. I want to instigate an appetite for debate among my students, the kind of debate that Scot and I have, where the goal is not to dominate but to clarify.

I’m realizing as I write this that what I’m talking about is precisely the same thing as editing. The proper word is revision. Vision: to see. Re: again. To revise is to take a second look. So many people are conditioned to think of critical analysis as an exercise in shame, probably because it is often delivered that way. “Here’s what you did wrong, and here’s the degree to which you suck.” That kind of delivery gives argument a bad name. Argument should be an opportunity, not a battle. In order for that to work, though, I think a prerequisite is the kind of baseline respect that Scot and I have. If you dislike the person with whom you’re arguing, you have a different priority — to win, rather than to illuminate.

I’m going to follow up on all this in another post, hopefully not too far from now. Comments on any of the above are welcome.


Blogger Wesley said...

That would be a great dialectic to bring to your classroom. But I agree it does have a prerequisite of a certain level of openmindedness and, yeah, respect.

Or you could just bring Scot into your classroom every now and then to blow the kids' minds...

11:14 AM  
Anonymous Beth W. said...

I've been in a classroom with Scot, as an adult and it blew my mind...

12:45 AM  

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