An opinion from 22 years ago
Dean Burton Wheeler was making a case, last Thursday afternoon at the second panel discussion on the liberal arts, for the value of friction in the educational process. This idea found a sympathetic ear here: we have begun to think there is altogether too much niceness on this campus and too little friction. In classes, especially, the usual pattern is this: each student takes his turn “making a contribution” to class discussion, with the tacit stricture, however, that no one should actually argue, but that everybody should “be nice.” Aside from a few teachers who display open contempt for their students, or enjoy browbeating them, most faculty members abide by this rule as well. Even in the occasional seminar that is taught by two faculty members together, they usually behave like parents whose marriage is strained, but who don’t want to argue in front of the children.
Eugene Genovese suggested something promising the other day: he said that in the history department at the University of Rochester, it is customary for teachers of opposite persuasions to teach classes jointly. A Marxist and a non-Marxist, say, will go at it in front of the class. Of course, the idea is not to provide students with a performance to watch, but discussion to enter into. We submit that the best way to do this is to give students something (somebody!) to argue with, rather than merely invite them to announce how they feel about one subject or another.
An objection that is often made when it is suggested that teachers ought to come clean with their opinions is that a university is not the place for preaching. But all teaching is preaching, only more or less well-disguised: the teacher who strives to conceal his political convictions teaches an ethic of privatism, and the teacher who has no convictions to conceal teaches only trivialities, while the teacher who argues intelligently for his own position and against other positions teaches more to his students not only about his own position but also, if he is capable, about the opposing points of view he argues against. It seems obvious to us that one learns more about philosophical idealism, for instance, from hearing a confirmed materialist press his case, than one could ever learn about either idealism or materialism from the teacher whose own viewpoint was not fixed.
Something a liberal arts education might teach students would be how reasonable adults can disagree, argue strongly against one another, but truly engage each other’s minds-that is, do each other’s arguments justice by demonstrating some understanding of them, even if, in the end, neither will concede to the other. The aim of reasoned discourse, we believe, is consensus: there is a fundamental pleasure in agreement. But this is no call to gloss over differences when they exist. And it is no reason not to expose students to these differences. Reasoned discourse can degenerate, especially in academic circles, into pedantic grandstanding-this is an ever-present danger, and no simple solution is apparent. Modes of mannerly argument can only be taught by teachers who are willing to present themselves as models: Dean Wheeler is one such teacher, judging by his friendly yet determined style at the panel discussion. We could very well do with a few more teachers like him.
Popularity: 1% [?]