Listening to just one professor becomes stale. We can re-invigorate classes by introducing the tradition of debate, argues Sam Wolfe.
Despite the postmodern sensibilities that undergird much of campus discourse — all truths are relative, different perspectives are all equally valid — the figure of the professor retains a rarely questioned authority. This is, in part, for good reason; the faculty with whom we interact are among the world’s finest, many of them giants of their respective fields. Stanford students are right to respect the wealth of knowledge that they provide us with. In turn, most professors remain eager to hear students’ opinions and inquiries.
At a certain point, however, a professor’s intellectual monopoly spawns problems. Even a doyen of a given field is fallible, prone as we all are to error, ideological blindness, and personal biases. Especially, though by no means exclusively, in social science classes, the issues that students learn about — and may well go on to professionally address — are far from settled. Some concern controversial ethical questions — on abortion, on euthanasia — that resist objective right or wrong answers. Some involve debates that may eventually have a right answer, but about which there is not yet consensus, e.g. how much the Federal Reserve should intervene in the economy.
In an impressive commitment to intellectual diversity, Yale University offers an economics class entitled Econ 185a: Debates in Macroeconomics. As the name suggests, the class’s two professors — Professor Stephen Roach, an empiricist, and Professor Aleh Tsyvinski, a modeler — argue constructively in class about fiscal policy, monetary policy, and other such macroeconomic issues. The differences between the two professors are methodological rather than ideological, but it’s easy to imagine using ideological disagreements for the basis of such a class, too. Rather than simply turning students into interventionist Keynesians or laissez-faire Hayekians, such a class would expose the nuances, flaws, and strengths of competing economic ideologies. Armed with compelling arguments from two sides of a given economic debate, these Yale students are able to better understand not only the views of those with whom they disagree, but also the weaknesses behind their own views.
This class format should be welcomed at Stanford. Even if students leave unpersuaded by the arguments offered on one side of a debate, there is value in simply knowing that there are multiple legitimate perspectives on a given issue. The temptation to absorb what your professor teaches and then assume that her view represents the academic consensus is in equal measure understandable and harmful. When students see two renowned figures argue persuasively for entirely different conclusions, they develop a healthy intellectual skepticism that transfers into other classes where such a debate format would be impractical or unhelpful (e.g. small, seminar-style classes).
Similarly, such classes would prompt students to critically evaluate the material they learn rather than mindlessly imbibe it. The University of Melbourne runs a class that rests on similar principles to Yale’s entitled “Debating Science in Society,” which asks students to write essays elucidating and defending their own perspectives on the issues debated in class. It is naive to imagine that Stanford students, many of whom dream of shaping the future, can passively learn for four years and suddenly become original, critical thinkers upon graduation. While Stanford already goes some way toward cultivating students’ intellectual autonomy, the spirit of critical evaluation should be vigilantly and emphatically infused in the curriculum year after year.
There is also the question of enjoyment. The conflict and dynamism of a debate are almost inevitably more entertaining than an uninterrupted monologue. The closest that most of us get to intellectual dissent in the classroom is the occasional diatribe from an older student. Well intentioned though these quasi-sermons may be, they would likely pale in comparison to the kind of rigorous, engaging disagreement one would expect from a second professor.
Where Stanford does offer classes taught by multiple professors, they often succeed. Last quarter, I took “Philosophy and Literature,” a class co-taught by comparative literature professor Josh Landy and philosophy professor Lanier Anderson. While debate was not the central purpose of the class, the professors did have occasional disagreements, notably over the film Adaptation (which we studied). It was a delight to hear the professors’ unique takes on why the film was excellent (Landy) or atrocious (Anderson). When it came to voicing their opinions in class and writing papers, students were firm in their convictions because, irrespective of whether they loved or hated the film, they had been exposed to arguments on both sides and had the intellectual surety of a professor’s backing. They became accustomed to intellectual disagreement; these questions in literature and philosophy did not have clear answers.
Loath though Stanford students may be to admit that we can learn from East Coast colleges, Yale has got this one right. Given the bevy of strengths to the model outlined above, Stanford should implement it wherever possible. Clearly some disciplines will be more amenable to it than others — some purely technical STEM classes and language classes, for example, should be left alone. But debate-oriented classes have the potential to greatly enrich almost any program at Stanford. International relations, economics, philosophy, and others that grapple with grandiose questions and fundamental social problems, would lend themselves to diverse perspectives and outlooks. These departments would do well to offer great-debate style courses, the appeal of which might even stymie the haemorrhaging of students to the CS department. The tradition of debate is as old as Western civilization itself — Stanford should embrace it.