Closing the Open Ends

I was struck this morning by a poster put up by a student group encouraging students to come to a discussion about social class. The poster quotes a typified person saying that class isn’t very important (I’m paraphrasing here) and follows by suggesting that anyone who thinks this can get educated by coming to the meeting.

That’s a generally typical rhetorical strategy for trying to appeal to people for political or social discussions and meetings on a college campus or elsewhere, across a broad political spectrum. “Think that there’s no genocide in the world? Come learn the truth!”, or “Want to know the truth about liberal propaganda? Come hear our speaker!”.

There’s a kind of perverse logic embedded within the appeal, though. The audience allegedly addressed by the poster or notice is never actually the audience who responds to the information, or rarely so. If you were already dubious about the analytic or political significance of social class in contemporary American life, or otherwise thought it was an uninteresting or unimportant issue, you’d hardly be likely to come to a meeting where it’s an apparent axiom that you’re completely wrong. Unless, perhaps, you were an unusually ornery or confrontational person who enjoyed disrupting the meetings of people whom you oppose.

So who usually is informed by such a poster and then comes to a meeting advertised as such, besides the people who are convening it? Those who agree with the implied premise of the notice but didn’t know about the group, those who have a pre-existing political commitment to the cause described in their own group and want to work out how to relate to the new group, and those who are anxious to signify their willingness to subscribe to the political beliefs implied in the notice and learn more about how to make good on that willingness.

Maybe a few of the latter will be surprised or dismayed by what they see, and drift away. Maybe a few of the already-committed will conclude that the new effort is chasing its own tail in some respect and turn away, or maybe a few politically committed attendees will decide that the new group is more organized and exciting than their existing commitments and jump ship.

In any event, such an appeal is about building constituencies, not exploring a problem. That’s where the (very typical) rhetorical gesture towards conversation or discussion or exploration, towards opening up a shared problem, is at the least misfounded, at the worst cynically performed. A group that assembles to ask, “Is social class really an issue?” with the intent of exploration has to start with as serious an acceptance of the probability that the answer will be “no” as it will be “yes”.

There’s nothing wrong with forming political groups along the lines of existing political commitments, of trying to get roughly like-minded people together for a common effort. I don’t like it when I see such efforts clouded by appeals for dialogue, conversation, exploration, however. On this campus and many others, I think those appeals are meant with great, in fact painful sincerity, which is a saving grace. But even so, it’s a terrible habit to get into, especially for students with liberal or left commitments, because it represents everyone with whom one disagrees as unenlightened, uninformed, as heathens yet-to-be converted to the true faith, not as people with worked-out convictions or even just some kind of substantive habitus which happens to diverge significantly from the premises of the group that’s trying to get together.

That’s the kind of bad habit that I think activists left and right have on a larger scale outside of campuses, leading to a kind of McEnroe-style incredulity when the inevitable encounter with serious dissent occurs, a bug-eyed cry of “You canNOT be serious”, as if it’s impossible that anyone could have a different view. The rhetorical hook of a poster becomes the philosophical presumption of a movement: that there is the cause, and then there are those who have yet to encounter the cause, nothing more.

Now if some of those posters are actually serious about the desire for exploration, something different is required, something much harder. If you can’t actually get someone with a principled position different than your own to sit down and talk openly with you (that’s obviously the best option), you almost have to assign members of your own group or circle of peers to represent those arguments in good faith. That takes a lot of work and a flexibility of mind. If everything is going right in a liberal arts curriculum, that’s part of what we should be teaching when we teach writing and speaking in our classrooms: how to know and represent the strongest arguments against one’s own position. Some days, I think we do a fair job of that. Other days, I worry and fret that we’re barely doing it at all.

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16 Responses to Closing the Open Ends

  1. Ralph says:

    Isn’t it hard to imagine how our public discourse could have become so relentlessly polarized if we were teaching our students to be able to articulate the best arguments against their own positions and why that might be an important thing to do?

  2. I wonder how much or in what way the ideal of mass education and/or mass democracy plays into this. It seems to me (good hermeneutist that I am) that all serious discourse is bounded: there has to be a shared horizon that tells all participants what counts as pertaining to a topic and what doesn’t, etc. Within that horizon you can get the incredulity you describe (“What?! You actually think from X you get Y! How can you not see Z?”); without it, you get nonsequiters and a lot of “huh?” I can’t help but think that at least part of the reason why we teachers have often failed to help our students learn how to, as Ralph puts it, “articulate the best arguments against their own position,” is because as the university has metastasized, identifying a “position” sufficiently shared and defined amongst the student body so as to allow for good argument has become much rarer and harder.

    Not a new point, obviously, but still one your post brought to mind.

  3. ebehren1 says:

    If there’s one thing that a liberal arts education ought to be instilling, it’s a love of evidence. Propagandists of all persuasions insult the faculties of observation and reason, (if not the faculties of universities), when they cherry pick evidence for the sole purpose of inducing a desired response from others.

    I’m reminded of your (quite excellent) last collection speech with its call to inaction. Ok, that’s not right, it was a call to non-presumptuous action.

    a committed agnostic, pending further evidence.

  4. Joey Headset says:

    I think the problem is amplified at Swarthmore, where just about every student is a self-declared know-it-all. Know-it-alls, generally speaking, love to tell other people what to think… so they are constantly looking for any opportunity to get others in sit still in a room so they can talk at them. However, know-it-alls tend to make a poor audience for other know-it-alls, because they have a tendency to talk back. And nothing undermines a good dialogue-session like people who want to respond after you’ve just spent the last 20 minutes screaming “EVERYTHING YOU THINK IS WRONG” at them. Due to the lack of students willing to be on the receiving end of this sort of thing, the know-it-alls have to finagle captive audience situations… circumstances in which they can tell people how wrong they are, without the fear of being repressed by back-talk.

    First year student orientation is one of the best captive audiences the know-it-alls have access to. For a solid week, they can spew their opinions, er… their KNOWLEDGE at these nervous frosh, knowing that they are too freaked out to stand up for themselves. If I remember correctly, the know-it-alls tried to get the college to install a mandatory “social justice” course for all first year students for the purposes of extending this scenario… something about unauthorized cake regurigation. And occasionally, with the help of a sympathetic professor, certain students have found they can really tee off on another student’s ideologies, knowing that their professor will slam that student to the ground if he tries to defend himself. Good times, good times.

  5. back40 says:

    The post, and your comment Russell, made me think of Scott Page and Lu Hong’s work on the importance of heuristic diversity to group problem solving. The more diverse the heuristics the better the performance of the group, up to the limit of their ability to communicate with one another. If they can’t understand one another they can’t work together.

  6. Bradley Reuhs says:

    I’m afraid that if we teach students “to articulate the best arguments against their own positions” we would be in violation of the university speech codes.

  7. Ralph says:

    I’m not sure in what sense you mean that. Obviously, I’m not arguing that we must teach students to _believe_ their critics best arguments; nor am I insisting that they be trained in offensive language. I am, by the way, basically opposed to speech codes, in any case.

  8. Bradley Reuhs says:

    I was being evil. Just highlighting the problems on campus at this juncture. We (the school) are in the middle of bruhaha about such matters as Timothy addressed, and I found the commentary topical.

  9. “The more diverse the heuristics the better the performance of the group, up to the limit of their ability to communicate with one another. If they can’t understand one another they can’t work together.”

    I’d be interested to take a look at some of the work you’re referring to, back40. I’m not, despite what my comment might have implied, an opponent of mass education; I’ve just never yet been able to really settle my thoughts about what it means to present myself as someone capable of and/or responsible for inducting the masses into what is, in fact, a pretty selective enterprise: learned public discourse. I know that a more diverse classroom can sometimes be a big help in getting me part of the way towards that goal, but I also know that the sheer size of our education infrastructure which brings, outsides elite institutions, most of that diversity into being has its own costs: beyond a certain point, any particular random slice of American university students is likely to suffer from so much general ignorance and insularity that whatever sprinking of diversity exists just isn’t enough to generate any discursive energy in the deadened atmosphere. You end up with big sections where most of the students literally don’t know what to say to one another in regards to the topic. It’d be neat to see some research which actually tried to estimate where that breaking point typically is.

  10. back40 says:

    Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers – Scott Page and Lu Hong

    The Logic of Diversity: The Complexity of a Controversial Concept – Cosma Shalizi

    You may have to twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope a bit to see the connection of this work to Tim’s post and your comment.

  11. hestal says:

    I went to Baylor long ago and things were different there. The world views of the student body and faculty were congruent.

    I taught math for a time, went into computers, and after thirty years, retired and returned to substitute teaching, accepting assignments of long duration — often six weeks or more. Nothing had changed except the administrators. Critical thinking or analytic thinking, supposed outcomes of teaching high school math, never materialized. Such thinking should be taught long before reaching university.

    At Baylor, it was all about recruiting new followers. The posters, placed in low-income areas of Waco by preachers-in-training, solicited participation by “youths” based on food and games. Once the folks were in the Baylor-owned former residence, known as a “mission,” the sales job started.

    Multi-level marketing schemes likewise recruit by incentives. The oldest MLM that I know of is Christianity. Paul was the principal recruiter and his letters show how to recruit, overcome objections, and hold the already-recruited in line.

    The situation of thinking everyone who disagrees is a heathen is characteristic of both extremes of the political spectrum. But lefties have a problem in winning recruits, because they are more willing than righties to listen to the other side, because they would rather be right than win, and because they truly think they are superior. Evidence of this can be seen daily, almost moment to moment, on The lamentations and moral victories being discussed there now about the Alito confirmation show why lefties lose elections.

    In the computer world where I worked, I found that calls for group meetings were often very successful because facts were being dealt with, not opinion as in social science. Problems could be defined, data could be verified, and testable solutions could be proposed. Likewise engineering meetings, such as how to handle pump motor problems in oil pipelines. So social issues, as a general discussion, will always follow the pattern you describe.

    However social issues could have some meat on the bone if they were discussed against a meaningful backdrop. The students would have to have some skin in the game. Nightly orations before fellow students on the subject of “My personal view of social class,” could trigger discussions among the audience members. Publishing ground rules for conducting such discourse could be dictated by the university and could be mildly reinforced in a short Q&A after the oration.

    Proposing legislation to solve some social issue could be instructive. The writing of it, in detail, absent legalese would start discussion. Practical analysis of consequences would keep it going. And then publication of the document, with its authors prominently named, and transmission to the appropriate legislative body would also help. Done monthly, with faculty advice, and on many subjects, would start breaking down the “know-it-all” barriers.

    Finally, at Baylor: “Hermeneutics? We don’t need no stinking hermeneutics. Dogma is both the icy and fiery end of rebellion, and is the best tool for holding the center, well, actually the right.”

  12. isorkin1 says:

    I’ve always experienced the liberal arts education as teaching us not how to see the weaknesses in our position, but simply as teaching us how to take a position, any position, and string together x number of pages supporting that position. Because most writing isn’t on something that you have a deep prior about: like, you read Marx and you have to write a seminar paper so you write about…Well, it isn’t interesting to say “I love Marxism (the political system)” or “I hate Marxism (the political system),” because that really isn’t what’s at stake in the German Ideology. Now materialism is, perhaps. But materialism as a doctrine hardly has a pre-set political viewpoint. As an econ major who has mostly drunk the neo-liberal kool-aid I’m basically a materialist. So you choose something, anything, to hang onto and to have an opinion about.

    In the sense that you have to create arguments for a position taken at random, you could probably do so for the exact opposite position — and this often provokes panic about half-way through the paper when you realize the major flaws in your argument. This awareness of flaws isn’t really a function of the glories of the liberal arts, but rather an awareness of when arguments are propositioning and when they aren’t ( as a math major, everything must try to be as elegant as a proof). But professors themselves only focus on the argument itself, not possible counter-arguments. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten feedback on a paper that said please consider more deeply the counter-arguments. The feedback I get is along the lines of here is how you could have made the argument stronger or more convincing (which only implicitely involves counter-arguments).

    Someone who comes in with strong priors about a question probably isn’t going to be challenged in their views, unless they are smart enough to see the problems in, and necessary qualifications of, their own arguments while writing the paper.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s well put, Isaac, but it kind of underscores the problem that worries me. Both because I think we provoke students to have an argument without explaining why one should and because we’re not nearly as good at teaching how to make an argument as we should be because we leave the idea of exploring alternatives or flaws in the implicit. And perhaps, worse yet, because many faculty trying to teach persuasive writing are not themselves terribly persuadable or interested in alternative constructions of their own predispositional views.

    This is one reason I still really like Gerald Graff’s basic take on this problem: that persuasion as we teach it is a sort of game, or ought to be explained as such. It has its rules, its parameters, and we’re trying to get students to play that game. Persuasion or argument as it appears in most courses here isn’t the same as persuasion in the larger world. I’m as likely to be persuaded (e.g., my predispositional inclination to action changed to some other action) in everyday life by someone crying or getting angry at me as I am by a well-constructed argument. Or persuaded by some sense of the inevitability of some development which I might otherwise regard as undesirable and thinly justified.

    In teaching the narrower form of persuasion that we tend to prefer, we could just say, “Do it because I say so.” But I’d like to say, “Do it because it’s the best way for a free society to conduct its public affairs”. In order for that to be true, we actually have to exemplify what we’re aspiring towards. To show how to be persuasive (and be persuaded) not just because it “makes your argument strong”, but because it’s the way we ought to want to be when collective decisions need to be made.

    I suppose what I’m saying here is that the strongest prior ought to be that all views are open to challenge.

  14. back40 says:

    Russel, I tried to answer you but the comment seems blocked. Perhaps this one will work.

    “# back40 Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    January 30th, 2006 at 11:18 pm

    Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers – Scott Page and Lu Hong

    The Logic of Diversity: The Complexity of a Controversial Concept – Cosma Shalizi

    You may have to twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope a bit to see the connection of this work to Tim’s post and your comment.”

  15. abstractart says:

    I don’t know when the last time you attended one of these things was, but this quote:

    “You’d hardly be likely to come to a meeting where it’s an apparent axiom that you’re completely wrong. Unless, perhaps, you were an unusually ornery or confrontational person who enjoyed disrupting the meetings of people whom you oppose.”

    is probably the best capsule explanation for how these things seem to work as I’ve ever heard. Every single time I’ve gone to one of these things it’s quickly devolved into a crowd of people violently agreeing with each other and the Lone Asshole (occasionally two or three Lone Assholes) violently disagreeing.

  16. Katie Davenport says:

    Isaac and AbstractArt–agreed.

    I took a class at Swat on Higher Ed with then-Vice President Larry Schall, and we discussed Affirmative Action, which *of course* functions only to enhance diversity and its attendant glories. But when I suggested that perhaps a diversity of *ideas* could be as or more important than a diversity of races or cultures, that perhaps Swat might consider Affirmative Action for conservative students, the idea was blown off without a moment of consideration. I’m willing to accept that perhaps I just didn’t present the idea very well, but I *do* think Swatties are ill-served by the ideological monoculture of the school.

    We could be raising the smartest lefties in the country here, but a lot of Swatties don’t argue very well because no one is willing to disagree with them! Just hearken back to the Living Wage campaign–anyone who dared to criticized the campaign was called racist, classist, elitist, end of discussion. I agree with Tim–if we’re not going to invest in fostering REAL debate as a pedagogical tool, we should drop this “diversity” and “discussion” farce and just go on patting each other on the back like we always have.

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