"I was puzzled by Charles Larmore's review of Charles Taylor's new book, A Secular Age, in the current New Republic. The book is sprawling and often maddening, but it is very important (I've tried to do it justice in my own review in the forthcoming issue of First Things), and I give Larmore high marks for his accurate (if prickly) summaries of the...
How to Debate in ClassSubmitted by augustash on Mon, 2010-11-15 15:02
The reality is that most students (and people for that matter) won't speak out. It's called human nature and it was recognized in the Declaration of Independence: "...all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."
While you might feel alone when debating a teacher, professor, or other students in a high school or college class, rest assured that there are more people than you think who agree with you. Remember the oft-repeated words of someone who knew a bit about speaking out, Sam Adams: "It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brushfires in people's minds."
That said, you don't want to end up being "that guy." We've all been there in class when the same guy debates every point the professor makes and ends up disrupting class and being annoying. Rather than getting other students to rethink their positions, they tune that guy out. Don't be that guy.
Remember: your goal for debating is to be respectable and credible, and ultimately to expose students to the ideas of freedom.
You are not likely to be able to defeat your teachers or professors. Sorry. They are the establishment. They also hold your grades in their iron grips. They've been doing this for years, and they know how to debate you. They probably have heard some of your arguments before. In fact, many professors have been trained through their education to know how to dismiss you and your ideas.
Don't lose heart. Just because teachers and professors know how to make someone look bad or are skilled at debate, doesn't mean they're right. History shows that many in academia have embraced some horrible ideas like eugenics, fascism, Marxism, and others that unleashed great evil on the world. And that is why we fight.
Some Rules for Debating
1) Debate on your terms. Don't wade into every fight. Pick your fights and be smart about them.
Rather than do a full frontal attack on what a professor or other student says, pose questions that cast doubt on the merits of the ideas being discussed and use other sources to make a point for you.
Let's say that someone in class throws out the statement, "The world has never been this hot before, and so we must stop climate change."
Here's a solid response:
"How would you respond to Dahl-Jensen's Greenland Borehole study that shows that there have been substantially warmer and colder parts of the earth prior to industrialization? Might that not tell us that there are greater influences on climate than man-made CO2, and that rather than focusing on stopping climate change, we should try to adapt instead?"
To back up your question, you could also offer to forward everyone a copy of the material you are sourcing (Note "Tell a Friend" indicated by the red arrow makes this easy.).
You can search Intellectual Takeout for other helpful sources on a variety of topics.
2) Use their own words against them. In another class you might be discussing John Maynard Keynes and his ideas on how to "manage" an economy. You might want to throw out that when considering management of the ideal economy, Keynes also included the idea of regulating the numbers and types of people:
"The time has already come when each country needs a considered national policy about what size of population, whether larger or smaller than at present or the same, is most expedient. And having settled this policy, we must take steps to carry it into operation. The time may arrive a little later when the community as a whole must pay attention to the innate quality as well as to the mere numbers of its future members."
John Maynard Keynes
The End of Laissez-Faire
Needless to say, ever since Germany's holocaust, Americans have not been very supportive of the ideas behind such policies Additionally, it's worth asking the question, "Where does the idea of managing an economy ultimately take the society?"
You can search Intellectual Takeout for other helpful quotes on a variety of topics.
3) Don't be emotional. It is okay to be outraged, but be rational in your response. Emotion can cloud your judgment and your argument. No matter how infuriating a professor's or student's statement may be, you want to keep the horribleness of the statement as the center of everyone's focus, not your emotional response.
4) Words matter. Pick your words carefully. Always try to frame your position in the positive. For some thought-provoking insight, read Words that Work by Frank Luntz.
5) Work as a team. If you have freedom-loving friends in class, work together. It is far better to voice doubt about a particular issue and then to be backed up by someone else in the classroom. If you have a laptop or handheld device in class, make sure your friends are working off the same material as you are. If you're going to talk about a graph or quote you find on Intellectual Takeout, make sure you send it to your friends, too.
6) Finally, keep your chin up through it all. Our freedoms, society, and civilization are worth fighting for and preserving. You won't win every debate, but you will change people's thinking. Don't be scared to stand up for what you believe. If not now, when?