Sunday, August 14, 2011

The lost art of rational debate

Two articles in this week's New York Times Sunday Review touch on the rapidly disappearing art of rational debate.

In his front page article, Neal Gabler discusses how:

It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy.
Gabler's culprits? Academic insularity and hyper-specialization, visual culture, social media, and, ultimately, information overload. But he omits two of the biggest causes. One is the precipitous decline in analytical writing and debate at the k12 level.

The other one emerges just 4 pages later in a piece by Sheryl Gay Stolberg. Citing Bill Bishop of The Big Sort, Solberg discusses how:
Americans now choose “in their neighborhoods and their churches, to be around others who live like they do and think like they do — and, every four years, vote like they do.”
Political sorting extends even to retail:
David Wasserman, of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, recently calculated that 89 percent of the Whole Foods stores in the United States were in counties carried by Barack Obama in 2008, while 62 percent of Cracker Barrel restaurants were in counties carried by John McCain.
And even, I'd argue, to jobs. Consider academia (especially the humanities, social sciences, and education schools) vs. business (big and small), not to mention the starkly divided nonprofit and political sectors.

The more we live, work, shop, and play with--and even "friend"--only those people who appear to agree with us, and the more we keep our mouths shut whenever we find ourselves in a tiny minority of dissidents within an increasingly intolerant majority, the less we engage in rational debate about anything. And (the more so because our k12 schools have abdicated their role in nurturing it) the worse we become at it.


kcab said...

The Gabler piece was interesting, thanks for pointing it out. I've been wasting too much time this weekend floating around internet links, so I'm sympathetic right now to the idea of too much information gathering and not enough processing.

I'm bothered though, by his assertion in one of the last paragraphs that ideas manifested as inventions rarely change the way we think. To me, this not only doesn't follow from his arguments but is negated by them.

Anyway, I'd agree with you that the tendency for us all to surround ourselves with people, things, and ideas that are comfortable results in a decline in rational debate.

And now that I've re-read my last sentence, I guess I should go read someone whose views I don't share...

mathematicamama said...

I watch what I say because these days people are beat up, shot, or fired (oops...nonrenewed) for expressing opinions.

James O'Keeffe said...

It this really a new phenomenon, or is it just groupthink on an ever-grander scale? Not only does technological progress consistently fail to equate with ethical, moral, or spiritual growth, but it may prove that technology only exacerbates what's already wrong with the human condition. (Sorry for the cheerless observation.)

C T said...

I was trying to have a rational debate just today on an educational blog. It's been very discouraging. Somehow someone decided I must be secretly prejudiced against Catholic schools because I oppose vouchers (I'm for charters and school choice, but directing public funds to religious schools for children opens up a huge can of very troublesome worms in our pluralistic society). My husband found that accusation humorous since I've told him that if I die (and so can't homeschool anymore), I (not a Catholic) would like him to put the children in one of the nearby Catholic schools if they can't get into the charter school I like best. The back-and-forth was characterized by a refusal to recognize any merit in my arguments; of course, I didn't expect to convert them to my "side", but I was alarmed at their willingness to misconstrue or ignore my points and make veiled personal attacks. It was quite unpleasant and makes me less inclined to enter future debates. And that was an interaction with people I will never meet! I understand completely why mathematicmama just watches what she says. It's very hard to "disagree agreeably" these days.

Anonymous said...

James O'Keefe: Love your comment: "it may prove that technology only exacerbates what's already wrong with the human condition"! Cheerless,maybe, but well perceived and said. I expect to find myself quoting you.

To Katharine: I'm not sure about the "precipitous decline in analytical writing and debate at the k12 level" to which you refer. If you're interested in addressing this topic any further, I would love to read about how you drew this conclusion and what types of schoolwork you are thinking of, ones that used to exist and are now gone or rare. In my experience -- I graduated from HS in 1975, and my kids are in or just out of college -- school was always just as unanalytical (or falsely analytical) as it is now!

Sandy in Florida

Katharine Beals said...

I attended a heavily-tracked public high school in the early 1980's. Assignments for the college bound included literary analysis and essays addressing specific issues in history (The one I remember best was on Andrew Jackson and populism). There could have been more such assignments, but at least there were some. My kids--and others I interviewed for my book--are getting far fewer. Replacing these are personal reflections/journal entry type assignments (especially in place of literary analysis), and travel brochure type assignments (instead of history essays)--assignments that were unheard of in my h.s. classes.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for responding, Katharine. In rereading my post, I realized I sounded a little accusatory or combative, which was not my intention -- I was just curious about this trend, which I was less aware of than I was about math trends. Thanks!

Sandy said...

I can't vouch for whether analytical writing was more prevalent in the past, but I'm certainly noticing my students' current lack of practice. I've been exploring the model advocated by the Foundation for Critical Thinking. It offers a structure for helping students distinguish inferences from assumptions from conclusions; evaluate their thinking for clarity, precision, and significance; and recognize that engagement is not the same as critical thinking. I'd be curious to know your thoughts about that model, if you're interested.

Katharine Beals said..., thanks for the link. I spent some time on the site, but found it a bit of a tease. It keeps things rather vague and abstract; to judge it, I'd need more concrete examples of what they're really about, and the one thing that might provide this for free, the demo quiz, requires that you first subscribe to the site. said...

I see what you mean, Katharine. Here are some of the more concrete items (they're free and no registration required, but they're not always easy to find).

Their basic model of critical thinking has 8 elements (Purpose, Questions, Information, Inferences, etc.) and 9 standards against which the elements should be assessed (Clear? Accurate? Logical? Significant? etc.).

They also discuss 7 intellectual traits or attitudes that they consider helpful: intellectual humility, perseverance, autonomy, empathy, integrity, etc.

They publish a series of short pamphlets of topics like "Engineering Reasoning," "Scientific Thinking," "Close Reading," etc. There is also one on "Educational Fads," and the first 30 pages are online.

You might also be interested in this essay called Why Students and Teachers Don't Reason Well. The authors discuss responses and perspectives of teachers who have taken their workshops -- see the section called "The Many Ways Teachers Mis-Assess Reasoning."

Finally, here is their paper on faculty emphasis on critical thinking in education schools across the US. Interview responses include samples of both weak and strong characteristic profiles.

On a related note, I recently finished reading Academically Adrift, an interesting but depressing study of critical thinking in universities.

Best regards,