Teaching Internal Debate

Dear Parents,

The campus is in a rare week of quiet, as end-of-year meetings are over and the summer programs have not yet begun. We have a fair number of students still here with us—working on the farm, in maintenance, or in the KDU.  Since we are not staffed to run Putney without students, and the summer programs students don’t have jobs, we find ourselves employing quite a few of our own over the summers.

Faculty and staff use the summer to recharge batteries and also to think and plan. I have a large stack of books I intend to read in the hope that they will shed some light on the world as we find it and help us to design the best possible environment and curriculum for teenagers. It is a challenging time indeed, and not an easy time in which to be an adolescent—or a parent.

One central focus of our efforts in the coming year will be to work on civil discourse and the skills needed to communicate effectively across race, class, gender and cultural divides. Although many of our students come to us already primed to do this, they see almost nobody in the national news modeling these skills, and social media encourages quick judgment over considered thought or contextual understanding.  Many college campuses are becoming hostile to the free flow of ideas, and many college students apparently believe they should be protected from ideas with which they disagree. I think that if people genuinely understand the intellectual underpinnings of their own beliefs and points of view, they are more likely to be willing to hear others’ perspectives.  Students need to understand that changing your mind is a sign of learning, not a sign of weakness.

One of the throughlines in our new graduation requirements is argumentation, which is sometimes called critical thinking. We describe this as “demonstrated ability, in the contexts of different disciplines, to construct arguments, to evaluate one’s own arguments and those of others, to ask important questions, and to evaluate competing claims.”  Below are a few examples of skills in the argumentation rubric, which outlines how this throughline will be assessed:

  • Independently and regularly subjects own thinking to internal debate and logical testing. Regularly outlines how an opposing point of view would present its reasoning.
  • Uses relevant, valid and sufficient evidence. Recognizes contradictory evidence and can realize when they are wrong.
  • Is aware that his/her/their own bias exists, that it may be limiting his/her/their ability to see an argument’s validity, and that some of that bias may be unconscious.

You are perhaps chuckling at how unlike a teenager all of this sounds.  Unfortunately it sounds quite unlike many adults in the public eye as well, whatever their point of view. These skills will be vital in any version of progress in America (and in other countries as well), and yet we seem as a culture to be getting worse and worse at them.

There are some wonderful examples of people who have changed their minds because they have allowed their convictions to be tested by new evidence.  I recommend for anyone interested in science the Edge.org book, What Have You Changed Your Mind About? Why? Another is Accidental Courtesy, a fascinating documentary about talking across racial divides (chasms, actually); this is available online. A wonderful look at American points of view in general is David Brooks’ recent OpEd piece “The Four American Narratives.” I’m sure you can recommend other things to consider, and if you send me ideas I’ll share them.

Of course, one of the best ways to have people reconsider their point of view is travel.  As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” This often doesn’t mean travel to distant lands; many of us could cross our own town and sit in a coffee shop and listen to the voices of a different world. I have noticed, though, that students who have returned to Putney from terms abroad are generally a bit less certain that they know for sure.

All the best for a wonderful summer,