Tuesday, March 1, 2011

beyond debate

Hal Pepinsky, pepinsky@indiana.edu, pepinsky.blogspot.com
March 1, 2011
“Conflict per se is not harmful. In fact, its absence suggests people who are frightened (to challenge a superior), resentful, or bereft of their rational faculties (as the total agreement among cult members demonstrates. Children know that disagreement exists; to force them to agree in a classroom is to deny reality and it is to deprive them of a real education. It is no coincidence that the word challenge means both to require someone to use her full range of abilities and to call something into question. Genuine learning does not smooth over or soothe. The same is true of effective problem solving: a rigid demand for agreement means that people will effectively be prevented from contributing their wisdom to a group effort.
“What makes disagreement destructive is not the fact of conflict itself but the addition of competition. In a debate (as opposed to a discussion or dialogue), the point is to win rather than to reach the best solution or arrive at a compromise with which everyone is satisfied. Listen in at a board meeting or a dinner party and you can hear the difference between someone participating in an exchange of ideas and someone trying to score points. Both are examples of conflict, but only one involves competition…”
Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition:
Why we lose in our race to win (Houghton Mifflin, 1986, p. 156)
My wife not only gave me the idea of starting to offer a seminar on “feminist justice” in 1987; she gave me No Contest which together with Birgit Brock-Utne’s 1985 book Educating for Peace: A Feminist Perspective, became my first texts for the seminar. Both books revolutionized my own teaching. As I slowly and sometimes painfully abandoned my lawyer-like propensity to offer propositions for classroom debate, the whole feeling of class changed, most dramatically in the alternative social control systems class of 2-300 I taught every semester I was in Bloomington. Student anger kept giving way to appreciation of being given credit for disagreeing with a professor. I felt interest rather than antagonism, as I was included in a sharing of differences of opinion. I lost my sense of being an outsider in my own classroom.
I just now turned off a local public radio talk show debate on whether to offer federal funding for public broadcasting. The host asked callers to tell “the screener” whether they were for or against the US House vote to take federal funding away. The guest who was in favor of the House resolution dominated the air space: a case of someone bent on scoring points. I thought of Kohn’s polemic against debates, got the book out, and quickly found the particular paragraphs I remembered. Thank you Alfie for these words! They radically changed my style of pedagogy. I aspire to transforming debate into discussion and dialogue as opportunity knocks. Labels like left and right have never made any sense to me, except as excuses to mount political and military battles.
I see that I used “beyond debate” as the title of a blog late last fall. Here I add Alfie Kohn’s words to that peacemaking message. Love and peace--hal

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