Posted by Dan Curley
I'm writing first and foremost to praise Rick Chrisman's recent and very cogent op-ed piece on the differences between dialogue and debate ("Daydreams: When an institution becomes a community," March 5, 2012). I completely agree that different modes of communication are appropriate to different aims and different moments. Is this not one of the goals of a liberal-arts education — to master different modes in terms of form, content, and outcome?
Speaking of outcomes and aims, I wonder if we couldn't push the distinction between dialogue and debate a little further. Because debate (as I understand it) is contentious and seeks to find flaws, foster differences, and imply conclusions, it smacks of privilege and power. By "privilege and power" I mean two things. On the one hand, debate theoretically enables any party involved to gain privileges and therefore to empower itself. On the other hand, debate very often allows the already privileged and the empowered to shore up the status quo. (I'll pass over how skilled debaters historically have had a kind of specialized education and training that attends privilege.)
If debate aims to create or enforce hierarchies of power, dialogue (again, as I understand it) aims to destabilize hierarchies by cutting across them, cultivating areas of agreement, and leaving room for further communication. These aims might seem unacademic, or "touchy-feely," to some, but true dialogue requires discipline and commitment: I am obliged not only to listen to my partners in dialogue (and they to me), but also to reflect on and interrogate my own presumptions, suppositions, and core beliefs. If these actions do not constitute learning, I don't know what does.
I think one of the most valuable outcomes of dialogue is how it enables all of us — if we choose to participate — to hear narratives that we would otherwise not hear. Especially not under the terms of debate, which is predisposed toward judgment. My experience with InterGroup Relations (IGR) and other venues of dialogue have inevitably taught me things I did not know and would never have known without those opportunities.
None of this is to say that debate has no place at a liberal-arts college. It does, and so does discussion (another mode of communication we should value and interrogate). Yet for this moment at Skidmore, the lateral approach of dialogue seems to me the most productive way forward.
Associate Professor and Chair