Argument and Debate for Justice

tll just wk 8 escher minds drawing
M.C. Escher’s Bond of Union. From a picture I took a picture of the cover of Howard Gardner’s Changing Minds.

My dad, who turned 77 last week, loves a good political argument, the louder, the better. To him, a battle of verbal expression, wits and knowledge is one of the most entertaining ways to spend a dinner conversation — the more opposite the views, the better–and the more fun.

I have been thinking about him the last few weeks, as our Teen Learning Lab students wrestle with learning how to debate and argue– and not have hard feelings afterwards.  On Friday, I introduced the students to the work of the Harvard Negotiating Project to help them have difficult, “Learning Discussions” with each other. Our goal is to help them think about these minor clashes in an intellectual way, and as an opportunity to bulldoze their own “Valleys of Ignorance.” (see the Justice Project Blog for more on this.) All our instructors are providing other ways to address the need for open communication, and empathy, while being fair. While being just.

Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School at Penn, has a weekend essay about how arguing actually makes people more creative! “If no one ever argues, you’re not likely to give up on old ways of doing things, let alone try new ones,” Grant writes. He offers four rules to arguing:

  • “Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict
  • Argue as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong
  • Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective
  • Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them. “

At Teen Learning Lab, we have been discussing rules like these all semester. We take seriously the importance of teaching these wonderful young people how to articulate their views, but also honestly and respectfully learn from opposing views. Grant goes on: “Teaching kids to argue is more important than ever. Now we live in a time when voices that might offend are silenced on college campuses… For our society to remain free and open, kids need to learn the value of open disagreement.”

When the TLL board and instructors were planning the curriculum for The Justice Project, I’m not so sure we were all prepared with how deeply these lessons in justice and empathy would resonate with us and with our students. But I can see profound changes happening in these students. They are rising to the challenge, even though it is hard, and they are learning tools that they will need in the future of our society.

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