Looking For A Lesson In A Dumpster Fire Debate

I promise you, for my mental health as much as anything else, this will NOT become a political blog. Despite my honest intentions to do just the one post on politics, teaching social studies to seventh graders in the days after a presidential debate can lead to a certain focus. As a general rule, I prefer to start my lessons from positive examples. At the same time, you know what they say about beggars and choosers, so sometimes I just have to work with what I have. With that in mind, I set out this week with the goal of communicating three lessons about proper debate and discussion to my students.

  1. Good rules don’t take away freedom, they enhance it. One of the big things with adolescence is testing rules to find the limits of your freedom. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s a natural part of developing your identity and establishing your own boundaries. That said, the boundaries are important. Theoretically, a presidential debate will allow the candidates to state their positions and policies, challenge the approach of their opponent, and present their case to the American people like a public job interview. In reality, none of that happened. Once it became clear that the moderator couldn’t enforce the rules, the debate devolved into a simple shouting match. The goal is for the students to realize that it’s important to lay out ground rules or expectations so that it can actually be a productive conversation.
  2. Ad hominem attacks do more damage to your humanity than the person you’re attacking. Ad hominem literally means against the person. A debate is about ideas, not persons. There are a million reasons why it’s dangerous to forget that, but the most basic is that it doesn’t work. I don’t mean that it will never convince people, I mean it will never effectively prove or disprove the ideas. There have been plenty of brilliant, terrible people, and there have been plenty of wonderful people with terrible ideas. Beyond that, though, more often than not, an attack on the person comes across as you being petty, small, and unable to find a flaw in the idea.
  3. It’s a waste of time to debate in bad faith. Even if you take the high road, follow the rules, and debate against ideas instead of people, a debate always takes at least two, and it only takes one of those people to derail the whole thing. When you find yourself in a debate, discussion, or argument with someone who tries to win by volume, intimidation, or deceit, sometimes the best thing you can do is leave. You don’t want to walk away and give up too easily, sure, but at a certain point, it becomes clear that they are not interested in a real exploration of ideas. If you stay, your debate ends with your loss, either because you lowered yourself to their level and engaged in a mud fight, or because you were completely unable to establish, let alone defend, your position.

All in all, the debate may have been a hot mess in a dumpster fire in a train wreck, but as a teacher, my job is to find the teachable moments, the lessons, in the good and the bad, and if we, as teachers, parents, and respected adults, do this well, then maybe it wasn’t such a disaster after all.

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