Editorial: Find a place for argument

Posted by the Editorial Board

For a college ostensibly involved with politics, social justice and environmentalism, Skidmore still lacks a culture of debate.

Students attend protests, lectures and dialogues. They take classes on topics of race, gender and class. All around campus can be heard the groundwork for controversial conversations, yet students still seem to think of argument as a dirty word. The recent reformation of the Skidmore Debate Club is an encouraging sign, and should leave the College looking for more opportunities to invite real, open discourse of the kind currently in scarce supply on campus.

Debate is not the same as dialogue, the specialty of Fight Club and the kind of meetings sponsored by the administration we saw last year following the Compton's incident. Dialogue is personal, emotional and highly sensitive. People share their feelings and anecdotes, and argument is usually discouraged in favor of ensuring an open and safe environment where all voices can be heard.

Debate is not the same as protest. Protest, the realm of slogans, posterboard and political theater, can be an extremely effective way to stimulate discussion and raise awareness, but involves little productive back-and-forth between divided ideological camps. As the Occupy movement finds itself in doctrinal gridlock, all should learn the lesson: protest packs a political punch, but protesters are not effective at finding solutions to complex problems. The forum is, again, one of showmanship, not of deliberation.

While a personal anecdote will win applause at an informal dialogue, and chants will raise a larger crowd than well-reasoned verbal sparring at a protest, neither tactic is effective in actual debates. Reason and logic are the faculties respected in debate, where points and counter-points are not shouted down and anecdotal evidence is rightly dismissed.

The EAC, engaged as it is with the issue of hydraulic fracking, should encourage well-educated proponents of the controversial practice to come to campus for a chance to defend their perspective in a real debate. The exercise would certainly be more educational than watching a documentary supporting the perspective of all or nearly all in the audience. "Preaching to the choir" should be especially abhorrent to all of us attending a college devoted to broadening our intellectual horizons.

Lectures are common, and the topics chosen can be quite contentious. A lecture given by the controversial journalist Chris Hedges last year provoked several inflammatory questions from the audience, none of which were given the attention they would have if the style of the presentation had been a debate. In contrast, this semester's sole debate on the sustainability of cities attracted a sizable crowd and gave a broader perspective on a contentious topic than would have been presented in a mere lecture. Leaving the argument for the remarks at the end of a lecture undermines the usefulness and integrity of dissent, something sorely lacking amid all this dialoguing and storytelling.

Oratory and logical dexterity are skills crucial to success outside of college, and they are very difficult to teach when true argument is discouraged. Seminars and intimate, small classes are a great start, but grading and the presence of a professor can preclude effective debate. It is important to offer a forum away from classroom conventions.

While Skidmore has several groups with different perspectives, too rarely do we students find ourselves in a room with two opposing, well-articulated points of view. As our campus celebrates the return of a club dedicated to the artistry of argument, we should encourage our clubs, and administration, to find room for real debate at Skidmore.

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