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Thursday, May 23, 2024
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Opinion: Where do we cross the line in classroom debate?

It’s time to reexamine the way we foster academic discourse among peers

From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's November 2022 print edition. You can find the digital version here

Anger is a valid emotion, but should it be invoked in classroom debate? Should conversations be pushed to the point where students are yelling, crying or leaving the room?

Heated, lively discourse is something that should be encouraged, but too many times I have seen debates in my classes turn ugly and unproductive. College is supposed to be a laboratory for figuring out how to have tough conversations and answer hard questions, but often the teaching element is left out when students are not held accountable for harmful comments or fallacious talking points.

There is a sort of tacit endorsement of these viewpoints when professors refuse to intervene and allow debate to reach the point of extreme emotion. When a student crosses a line with either hateful, offensive or personally charged comments, the professor should be the intervening force, not the other students. When professors decline to step in, debate can easily devolve away from decorum into the realm of ad hominem attacks. That is not the point of an educational debate, or at least I hope it isn’t.

No one should come out of the classroom feeling like they were personally attacked or targeted — even if they were the ones in the wrong. Students deserve grace to learn from their mistakes, but that requires being held accountable by an authority figure and not their peers speaking from anger.

When someone begins their point in a classroom debate with the phrase, “To play the devil’s advocate...,” eyes are sure to roll and the discussion is likely to turn more divisive.

The “devil’s advocate” is a tactic involving sharing a controversial opinion, that even the speaker may not agree with, to elicit a more lively debate. This concept does not open the door for more interesting discussions and often only elicits emotional responses and further entrenchment in one’s own beliefs.

True dissent is what drives productive debate, not the devil’s advocate, but such true dissent needs to be monitored carefully in the classroom. Professors need to intervene in discussions and be active participants in helping students work through productive discourse that doesn’t involve ad hominem attacks or endorsement of harmful talking points.

During syllabus week, a litany of professors call for students to be tolerant of values and political ideologies separate from their own, which is not inherently a bad thing. However, where is the line drawn when certain beliefs advocate for the harm of others and where do professors step in to correct these actions? The preoccupation with remaining fair and balanced has opened the door for extremist views to have a platform in the name of hearing out both sides.

College is a time for learning and making mistakes. Oftentimes, students employ dangerous talking points — like logical fallacies, dog whistles or purely inaccurate information — without knowledge of their implications and find themselves at the center of a classroom controversy. Other times, students purposely engage in harmful discussions, either as devil’s advocates or devils themselves. 

Both these groups should be held accountable, but not berated. I’m not arguing that professors simply lambaste offending students. Instead, I want these scenarios to open doors for educators to correct harmful behaviors by explaining their faults, either in logic or ethics. Then, lay down rules of operation for productive debate where students aren’t afraid to disagree and actually learn something from their experience.

We should be able to talk about difficult situations, tough questions and controversial issues in class, but we should do so in a way that students leave the discussion with insight, not indignation.

Jelinda Montes is a junior in the School of Public Affairs and School of Communication and a columnist for The Eagle.

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