Recently I attended five events at UNC-Chapel Hill. Doing so was part of my job, but I enjoyed them thoroughly. They included two lectures, two debates, and a daylong program about free speech and the First Amendment.
After they were over, I couldn’t help thinking: If somebody were to attend all these events and read the participants’ books (or some related materials), that person would be getting an outstanding, albeit slightly unfocused, education.
One debate—between conservative author Dinesh D’Souza and liberal religion studies professor Bart Ehrman—particularly stood out. Fourteen hundred people—students, faculty, and members of the community—packed an auditorium and hung on the participants’ every word, for an event entitled “God and the Problem of Suffering,” a deliberation about the existence of God in an era when secular humanism (and beer and football) is assumed to dominate the campus.
Then it dawned on me—the debate format is a fantastic way to learn! A lecture may be a better way to simply deliver information in an organized manner, but a debate is a vastly superior way to create and sustain interest. It has elements of human drama that lectures lack. Who has the upper edge? Can somebody come back from a powerful argument by his or her opponent? Will somebody get flustered? It is a contest and a competition, and people are naturally drawn to such things.
Therefore, why can’t there be classes that deal with the important questions—either current or historical—that are debate-based rather than completely lecture-based?
Debate-based classes won’t work in all subjects, particularly those in the sciences and technology. But the concept should lend itself extremely well to subjects like history, philosophy, and political science. For example, instead of a standard history or philosophy lecture on Aristotle and Plato, their ideas could be made more vivid by two teachers debating, one using the ideas expressed in Artistotle’s Politics and Ethics, the other using the ideas from Plato’s Republic. Or a debate could match a professor taking the side of the Federalist New Yorker Alexander Hamilton against the agrarian, limited- government advocate Thomas Jefferson (no, we’re not talking costumes and impersonations here, just ideas). Or, to frame the Civil War in the perspectives of the era, rather than in the way we think today, an ardent pro-slavery, states-rights advocate could debate an abolitionist, with a third party representing the various compromise positions.
Given the declining enrollment in many humanities departments, why not seek more inspiring methods? In a recent American Scholar article, William Chace states that history majors declined from 18.5 to 10.7 percent of all college students between 1970 and 2003, English majors dropped from 7.6 to 3.9 percent, and philosophy majors diminished from .9 percent to .7 percent.
Certainly, the humanities are losing students to the more “practical” business-oriented departments that offer a better chance for lucrative employment upon graduation. But there are any number of reasons why interest in the humanities has declined among college students, and pedagogy at least has to be considered. The humanities are also competing for students with the social sciences, such as psychology, sociology, and criminology, in which students are less frequently required to read difficult texts. If the humanities could be made more exciting, and more relevant, perhaps they could start to attract students back from these less rigorous disciplines.
Other recent pedagogical innovations, such as online courses, are not likely to reverse these bleak trends, since all disciplines employ them. But the humanities and some related fields (such as political science and comparative economics) have a natural advantage when it comes to the debate format.
What I am suggesting is that two professors, both with some expertise in the topic, take sides on an issue and square off before a classroom. While there might need to be some scripting to make sure that their dialogue met the demands of the course, there would also be room for spontaneity, to make it exciting.
This is not about student debates. Student in-class debates and presentations are usually boring, awkward affairs, of benefit only to the participants. What is needed is people—either professors or possibly graduate students—who know the material cold and who can formulate arguments on the fly.
Lectures need not be completely eliminated from such a program. They are often necessary to provide an overview or to prevent the course from being merely a series of snapshots rather than a continuous whole. For instance, in a course on American history, the struggle between North and South might be the most debate-worthy issue during the mid-nineteenth century, but there was a whole lot else going on: westward expansion, technical advances, the Mexican-American War, the California Gold Rush, and more. Lectures could fill in these gaps, and there is probably some optimal ratio of lectures to debates, depending on the subject.
The phrase “critical thinking” is commonplace in higher education, but all too often, it is used to describe acceptance of a particular perspective, not an ability to critique ideas and develop arguments using factual evidence. A debate format is more likely to develop true critical thinking, as students would regularly be exposed to a series of opposing logical arguments, some of them created by the finest minds that ever existed.
To build that critical thinking, debate-style courses would also have large writing components. Students would be expected to produce three or four pages on each debate, either summing up the arguments or taking sides (or possibly taking both or neither side). This type of writing would help students develop the habit of organizing their thoughts to produce a coherent argument, based on the debate and original-source readings. Such consistent practice of the art of rhetoric could prove invaluable in any future job that requires analytical and communication skills.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of a course based on debates is that it greatly reduces the potential for political bias that many critics claim is pervasive in academia. By their very definition, debates provide both sides of the story. Even if both participating faculty agree on an issue, one must take the opposing side. And it is likely to temper the professors’ own inclinations to present only their positions.
Too often, we only get the side of the winners. But many questions never die—the world is still struggling with issues framed by Plato and Aristotle, such as whether society is best ruled by a small intellectual elite or by a broad base of citizens.
One objection likely to be raised by skeptics is that an extra professor (or professors) is needed to teach each course. But this is not really a problem: debates can be held before large numbers of people. Two or more sections of a class can be combined for the debate portion, or one class can be taught by several faculty members and still be cost-efficient if the class is large enough.
Another way to handle this objection is to have the professors with the most expertise in an area “guest debate” in others’ classes, ensuring a high quality debate. This might increase some teachers’ workloads, but spreading the work around a bit would reduce that problem. And the potential results are likely to be worth it.
And why limit courses to just one form of information delivery? Lectures and debates are likely to be complementary—one to provide information, the other to inspire and frame the issues more clearly.
College teaching tends to have few major innovations, other than having online classes (going from overhead projectors to PowerPoint isn’t really a major shake-up). But in an age when so many students are disengaged from their studies, this might be one way to re-engage them. Real education begins with the desire to learn—if students can be inspired, the battle to educate them is already half-won. And what is more likely to get the blood flowing, just another lecture, or watching two professors battling it out and then jumping into the fray with your own (written) opinion?
The following is a sample syllabus for a two-semester, debate-based survey course in American history. The author is not an historian, just somebody with a decent layman’s grasp of history. It is only intended to illustrate the ideas expressed in this article, not to be a complete, ready-to-implement syllabus.
This is a two-course sequence covering American history from its discovery by Europeans to the present. The semester is sixteen weeks long, with finals in the 16th week.
Both courses have two classes per week that are each one hour and twenty minutes long.
There is one debate every other week, for a total of eight per semester.
The debates will last approximately one hour, with the additional time used for questions.
One week after each debate, a 1,200 word paper about the debate is due.
The paper should take one of the sides, or argue why both or neither side is valid.
Papers should not only make use of the debate, but of original source readings.
The rest of the classes are traditional lectures to provide an overview.
There will be two tests, a final and a mid-term. They will cover material from readings, lectures, and debates.
History 101: European Discovery to the Civil War
Week 1. Early 1600s: Two potential investors discuss whether investing in the new colonies is a good idea. Or: Two Separatists (husband/wife) argue about whether to go on the Mayflower.
Week 3. 1600s: Is freedom better served by having colonies for each sect, where people can create a state that matches their beliefs, or by having separation of church and state, where people must govern by compromising with others?
Week 5. 1700s: The Colonies' Proper Role in the British Economy: Do they exist to support the home country or do they exist for themselves?
Week 7. Late 1700s: When should a people resort to violent overthrow of the existing government? Can democracy be created in every society, or must certain natural conditions exist? (This is based on the argument laid out in Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.)
Week 9. 1800 (give or take): Federalism vs. anti-Federalism
Week 11. Early 1800s: America's Role in the World: Was America entitled to settle the entire continent from coast to coast (Manifest Destiny), and was the Monroe Doctrine the right policy?
Week 13. Mid 1800s: National Bank vs. Gold Standard
Week 15. Mid-1800s: The events leading up to the Civil War: Abolitionists vs. Slaveholders/States Rights advocates vs. Various Compromise positions
History 102: Reconstruction to the Present.
Week 1. Post-Civil War: Should the federal government have implemented a stricter Reconstruction of the South or a less strict Reconstruction?
Week 3. Late 1800s: Was the Gilded Age good or bad? Or Was the nation's westward expansion a form of colonialism? What were the rights of the Native Americans?
Week 5: Early 1900s: America's Role in the World: Should the U.S. have entered World War I? Spanish American War? Joined the League of Nations?
Week 7. The Roaring Twenties: Should the United States have restricted its immigration policies? Was the Red Scare a serious threat?
Week 9. The Great Depression: Was the New Deal a Good Deal?
Week 11. Post World War II: Strict Construction of Constitution vs. Living Document: Are people entitled to economic rights as well as civil rights?
Week 13: Post World War II: Would the U.S. have been better working with the Soviet Union or confronting it?
Week 15. Today: America's New Role in the World: Should the United States maintain its strict sovereignty or should it be willing to yield some of it to international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund?