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University of Pittsburgh

February 16, 2017

Senate Matters

Debate in the classroom

Teaching is not limited to the process of imparting information to our students. As concern over “fake news” and “alternative facts” demonstrates, the primary danger when it comes to information is not starvation but overconsumption. We are exposed to a vast welter of information, and part of our responsibility as educators is not just to add to this deluge but to provide our students with the capacity to judge what is good and what is bad.

In grade school, I learned how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, memorized the Pythagorean Theorem, and recited the amendments to the United States Constitution. I still can recall all of this today, but then again, so can my iPhone.

The most important part of my education did not come from classroom instruction but through my participation in competitive debate. Debate taught me how to research efficiently, be skeptical about what I heard, synthesize what I knew, and make judgments about the quality of an argument based on logic rather than preference. Argumentation skills foster better information processing, and that is a vital capacity for students today regardless of what they study. The ability to dissect arguments, analyze logic and distinguish good information from bad is what in military terminology is called a “force multiplier.” It makes us smarter, and it teaches us to communicate what we know. That is why when I joined the University faculty I was pleased to learn that Argument is offered as a general education class; its methods are useful across the curriculum.

Incorporating debate into diverse classrooms is an excellent method for teaching both topical information and the vital skills of evaluation. Debate is an active learning method that incentivizes students to do their own research, tailor its presentation to an audience, and rely on teamwork. Its ludic aspects excite many students and keep their attention. I have watched otherwise apathetic students invest hours into esoteric subjects to guarantee a good performance. With guidance by an instructor, students can learn to pick apart arguments — both their own and those of their classmates — to develop better positions. This is a kind of education that we should be proud to give. No student should leave their undergraduate education without some grasp of validity, soundness, cognitive biases, statistical significance and the whole range of tools necessary to form well-grounded beliefs based on fact rather than conjecture. No one has perfect information all the time, but when we can’t be right, rigorous logic and information processing can at least make us less likely to be wrong.

A key aspect of debate is its emphasis on multiple sides of an issue. The modern glut of information paradoxically discourages students from encounters with people who disagree with them. Social media, niche ideological news sources, and homogenous peer groups lead to confirmation bias and groupthink in the form of “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers.” In debate, students can be encouraged to research and defend opinions that they do not personally hold. There should be obvious limits on this practice, but when done well, students may learn to respect opposing views, treat them more inclusively and develop a better grounding for their own beliefs. Empathy often seems as scarce as critical thinking in our contemporary situation. With good instruction, students can learn that it’s not about playing the “devil’s advocate,” but understanding that someone else is not the devil simply for disagreeing with them.

College is an exciting time for our students and an opportunity for them to build good habits of mind that can benefit them for a lifetime. As instructors, we all compete with the myriad demands and diversions of college life to capture students’ attention. Debate is one interesting way to do that, teaching not just our own content but the skills to acquire and analyze more in the future. Everyone uses the skills of argument, from scientists applying for grants to anthropologists explaining cultural change to undergraduates supporting their views in term papers. We should help our students hone their argument skills to prepare them for their futures in academia, government and business, and as members of a democratic society making the hard choices that keep democracy afloat.

Calum Matheson is an assistant professor of public deliberation and civic life in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Department of Communication and director of the William Pitt Debating Union.

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