Thursday, March 09, 2017

On learning to argue with people where we disagree - what's possible and what isn't.

I am reacting to this segment from the Charlie Rose show, which featured Frank Bruni of the New York Times and Jonathan Haidt of NYU.  It is quite interesting viewing so I encourage others to watch it if you haven't already.  Nonetheless, I was not happy with some of the conclusions.  So I puzzled about it for a while.  It occurred to me that some of what was being said echoed Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, a book from 30 years ago.  (I read it many years later.)  I found this more recent piece about Bloom, which was illuminating and shows he was much more complex than those in the Reagan fold (William Bennett comes to mind) who embraced what Bloom was saying.  The connection to Bloom shows these issues have been with us for quite a while.  In spite of that, these issues haven't come close to being resolved.

My core hypothesis is based on the following propositions:

(1) Most people don't know how to argue, including many who are members of the professoriate.  So there are not a lot of good models to emulate for the learner.  Further, it may be that acquisition of the skill is difficult and arduous, or if not that, then it is painful.  There needs to be some limiting factor that explains why the skill is not more widespread.

(2) Experts, those who have completely mastered a set of interrelated skills, are often not good teachers for novices, especially when the experts themselves were precocious learners in their formative days.  Good teachers have empathy for the learner who stumbles or finds himself blocked.  The good teacher offers helpful suggestions to get the learner back on the learning path.  The expert may not perceive the need for doing that or not know how to do that.   While it is said that you really learn a subject when you teach it, already knowing the subject doesn't mean you can teach it.

(3) Putting (1) and (2) together, experts at argument often are too normative in their approach and simply assume that learning will happen if the environment shows what the end goal looks like.  College campuses maintain they are for the free exchange of ideas.  That is the end goal.  So students should learn to argue in the college environment.  Metaphorically, this is like throwing the novice swimmer into the deep end of the pool.

(4) We need to work through a good pedagogic approach to learning to argue.  In that learning would proceed in stages.  Learning happens if the learner is open and thus somewhat vulnerable.  Having too harsh an environment doesn't promote learning at all.  It instead leads to self-protection, where people tend to close up.  In turn, that blocks further learning.

(5) What is referred to as argument comes in two forms.  One is argument that seeks the truth.  The other is argument where participants have the sole goal for their prior view to prevail, that is to win.  Idealists, and I consider myself idealistic in this dimension, much prefer the first form.  In that form the participants have some humility to them and embrace the fencing term touch√©.  In other words, they acknowledge when the other person has made a good point.  In the second form, that never happens. One reason why people shy away from argument is that they may want the first form but don't know if the other is of the same mind that way.  Nobody likes the hard sell on things they don't already want.

Now I want to comment on my own learning about argument and to use that to then cycle back to some points that Jonathan Haidt made that I found interesting.  For much of the time growing up I had friends who were not friends with each other.  So I had separate interactions on more than one dimension.  This started in elementary school - second grade.  My best friend, David, who lived across the street from us, went to a different elementary school.  (I described some of my relationship to David in this post called Slapball.)  This continued on into junior high but expanded some.  David had a friend, Jimmy M, who also became my friend.  But neither of them were in an SP class.  I was.  So we interacted before and after school but not during.  I developed a whole bunch of new friends from the class I was in. Among them, Steven G. was my best friend.

Through junior high school, friendships were pretty much based on play of one sort or another.  In high school, some of the friendships had an intellectual aspect.  I would have interesting and intensive discussions on a variety of topics.  I did this a lot with Lenny, Jimmy K, and Michael.  (They were each on the math team, as was I.)  They all knew each other, but my discussions with them were one-on-one.  Mostly it wasn't about politics.  But once in a while it was.  Michael was much more conservative than the rest of us.  At the time the fashion was for kids to have long hair.  Michael kept his closely cropped.  So he was different that way, but we got along fine because we did have other common elements.  I want to note that I remained friends with David and Jimmy M during this time.

There were some cliques in high school, which I think was a social thing rather than a political thing.  I'm not sure why others became part of a clique, but I did not, in the sense that I had different friends who didn't overlap.

In college, particularly my last two years at Cornell where I lived at 509 Wyckoff Road, I found myself in a near ideal situation for my own learning. Social life and intellectual discussion blended.  The space was very safe.  We were extremely open with each other who lived there, but guarded about bringing in other people who did not.  Particularly interesting to me were Sue and Joyce, who shared a room on the third floor.  Sue was in the Hotel School and in the rest of her existence I sense she behaved in quite a different way, putting on a performance in that setting.  She really seemed to enjoy our group in Wykcoff, where the act wasn't needed and she could be herself. Joyce was in food science and didn't lead this sort of dual existence, but I believe also got something out of the interactions we had because she didn't get something similar elsewhere.  There were also grad students on the floor.  Ed was in Physics.  Jane was in Human Ecology.

One of the big points I want to make here is that we never talked about what we were studying.  So we were all novices in the conversations, which contributed to them being freer and more open.  I would not describe us as a clique at all. We were simply people brought together by a common living arrangement and we learned to enjoy each other's company very much.  There were other people in the house, who didn't live on the the third floor, that we also got along with quite well.

My conclusion is that to the extent that these experiences taught me how to argue it happened under conditions of safety in conversation among people I was already friendly with.  I did have disagreements with Ed now and then, but while they were challenging they were definitely not explosive.  In other words, there was some experimentation but it was non-threatening experimentation.   I had a taste for that sort of thing.  I don't know whether my preference is universal or not, but I'm pretty sure a harsher environment wouldn't have been helpful for me.  It is for that reason that I think both Bruni and Haidt over romanticize the past - kids are overprotected now - in our day it was much more rough and tumble.  The former might be right.  The latter is claiming too much.

Haidt made the point that there are now cliques in the humanities and they are of an intellectual sort.  They champion the underdog (e.g., the Palestinians over Israel or Occupy over investment bankers).  This itself, might not be a liability.  But these cliques seem rigid and don't consider issues along other dimensions, which in turn leads to intolerance.  I have some friends who are humanists yet don't fit this mold.  But I don't know any undergraduate students in the humanities now, so can't say whether Haidt is giving an accurate description or if Middlebury and Illinois are sufficiently different campuses for the point not to apply (though Berkeley probably isn't that different from Illinois).

Haidt said these attitudes don't permeate through the entire campus.  Business students got a particular mention.  (Haidt is in the B-school at NYU.)  He said these students are much more practical in their orientation and thus much less ideological.  Likewise, students in STEM disciplines are not nearly as ideological.  One doesn't know, however, whether they are more capable of arguments where the people disagree or if they simply refrain from those topics in discussion because they know it would go badly.  It may be that very few students know how to argue, but some are willing to voice strident opinions, in a take it or leave it manner, while others are not.

I would also like to point out that self-righteousness is not the sole province of the humanities, far from it.  One recent example is that some Bernie supporters never warmed up at all to Hillary.  They could only see the bad in her - she had sold out completely to the monied interests.  Writing this paragraph I find myself challenged.  On the one hand, I needed some example to support the point in the first sentence.  On the other hand, I don't want to argue the example.  Indeed, in today's rhyme (I post a rhyme most days to Twitter, one of my own creation) the theme was why engage in a conversation that likely will end at loggerheads, with everyone angry.  Who needs that?  Most people shy away from such topics.  I'm no different. 

Let me make one more point and close.  Elsewhere I've written that my core value is collegiality.  Collegiality enables argument where people disagree.  Further, in a collegial atmosphere it is less likely that somebody will take offense to what might be considered a minor transgression.  Sometimes we talk about where to draw the line.  Better, I think, would be to ask whether the transgression can be walked back with a reasonable expectation that it was an isolated incident.   If so, that can be tolerated.  In a non-collegial environment, the perception of hostility considers it a permanent condition.  Angry outbursts can happen then.  But argument cannot.

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