College debate: Is logic white?

African-American college students are transforming debate tournaments, writes Jessica Carew Kraft in The Atlantic. Traditional debate — based on logic and evidence — is tainted by “white privilege,” they argue. Instead “alternative” debaters rely on personal experience — and ignore the topic they’re supposed to be debating.

On March 24, 2014 at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Championships at Indiana University, two Towson University students, Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, became the first African-American women to win a national college debate tournament, for which the resolution asked whether the U.S. president’s war powers should be restricted. Rather than address the resolution straight on, Ruffin and Johnson, along with other teams of African-Americans, attacked its premise. The more pressing issue, they argued, is how the U.S. government is at war with poor black communities.

In the final round, Ruffin and Johnson squared off against Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, two highly accomplished African-American debaters with distinctive dreadlocks and dashikis. Over four hours, the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like “nigga authenticity” and performed hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “Fuck the time!” he yelled.

In the 2013 championship, Emporia State students Ryan Walsh and Elijah Smith used a similar style to win two tournaments. “Many of their arguments, based on personal memoir and rap music, completely ignored the stated resolution, and instead asserted that the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight, white, middle-class students.”

Arguments “can come from lived experience,” says Joe Leeson Schatz, Director of Speech and Debate at Binghamton University.

Others say “alternative debate” doesn’t require students to research evidence or develop “the intellectual acuity required for arguing both sides of a resolution.”  

Some colleges may form a new group devoted to “policy debate.”

It’s all part of the war on standards, writes former debater John Hinderaker, now a lawyer, on PowerBlog. The value of debate is “now being lost, as standards have disappeared, logic is out the window, and bullshit about race is replacing actual argumentation.”

Co-blogger Paul Mirengoff, also a lawyer and a former debater, adds:

College debating, it seems, has been radically transformed in ways that make it easier for African-Americans to succeed at it.

As for the notion of “privilege,” it is now clear that the debaters of our era were privileged in a limited but important sense. We were required to take the activity seriously and to meet high standards in order to succeed.

. . . We were also privileged to be judged by adults who held us to knowable standards, and we were privileged to debate serious opponents.

Defining logical argument as a “white thing” does not do blacks any favors, in my opinion.

Joe Miller’s Cross-X, about a low-performing Kansas City high school’s winning debate team — questions the fairness of traditional debate. He profiles black students who win a national tournament, earn college debate scholarships but find they’re not prepared for college-level work.

Core teaches citizenship

The Common Core will teach kids to be good citizens, argues Ross Wiener in The Atlantic. The new standards aren’t just about college and career readiness. Common Core is “deeply and explicitly focused on preparing students for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”

The Common Core identifies three texts—and only three texts—that every American student must read: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution (Preamble and Bill of Rights), and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

. . . Acknowledging the explicit prioritization of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution can re-center the political debate on the merits of Common Core. These documents are embraced across the country and across the political spectrum because they represent the common ground and shared commitments that unite us as Americans. Understanding them is at the core of why public schools were created in the first place. Closely reading and deeply comprehending these documents is essential to Thomas Jefferson’s vision that public schools should enable every American “to understand his duties to his neighbors and country” and to scrutinize the actions of public officials “with diligence, candor and judgment.”

High school English Language Arts standards call for students to analyze the historical and literary significance of foundational U.S. documents and speeches, Wiener writes. Examples include Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech and King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Students are expected to “understand Supreme Court opinions and dissents and decide for him or herself whether the Court arrived at the right decision.”

“Common Core articulates standards for speaking and listening that develop students’ ability to participate in democratic debate,” writes Wiener.

Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.

Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a fair hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.

These are college, workforce and citizenship skills, Wiener concludes.

High school graduates will be able to evaluate the merits of U.S. Supreme Court decisions? “O brave new world that has such people in’t.”

I was in Junior Great Books from fifth through ninth grade. We started each year by discussing the Declaration of Independence. It took us three years to get past “all men are created equal.” We never made it past the “pursuit of happiness.”

What should students know?

What should students know? Robert Pondiscio asks Deborah Meier on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences blog.

In an earlier post about the “hidden curriculum,” Meier said a good school is judged by how it  “responds to the cultural norms, conditions, language, relationships that all the constituents bring to school with them.”

What about history, math and science? asks Pondiscio.

Meier’s schools — Central Park East Secondary School (Harlem) and Mission Hill (Boston) — set very clear graduation requirements, she responds.  The schools teach history, math, physical and natural science, literature and the arts in a “more interdisciplinary manner.” The schools encourage “curiosity, debate, skepticism, and a commitment to getting at the truth about the ‘essential questions’ in each discipline.”

Students work was expected to demonstrate five intellectual habits of mind:

 What’s the evidence? Is there a pattern?  Is there an alternate perspective, explanation? What if? And who cares?

. . . Students were rated on their written and oral ability to present their views and defend them.  We thought the five “habits” met both academic and “real life” standards. (We developed a separate list of work and social/moral habits—meeting deadlines, etc.)

“Our students’ record of success” satisfied many skeptics, despite the lack of a list of “specific information” to be taught, writes Meier. 

“I want our students to be prepped for the real world, and I hope colleges do, too,” Meier concludes. Students did well in college interviews — and in college — because “they were unusually well prepared to carry on a conversation with adults in a thoughtful and lively way.”

Proofreading prof charged with ‘microaggression’

Protesters claimed a “toxic” racial climate in UCLA’s graduate education school motivated their sit-in last week in the classroom of Professor Val Rust.

Call2Action protesters said Rust committed “microaggression” by correcting their grammar and spelling on their dissertation proposals, wrote the professor in a letter from China, where he’s traveling. He also said “Students of Color” were angry that he hadn’t stopped a student discussion.

. . . a white female student . . . wants to use Standpoint Theory [a method of analysis coined by feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith, based on the idea that all knowledge is subjective and based on one's position in society] in her dissertation, and the Student of Color told her she had no business claiming that she was a member of an oppressed group. She came back saying there are all kinds of oppression. I likely did not handle the situation well, because I chose not to stop the discussion between them, so it went on for quite a while, and the Students of Color apparently interpreted my silence to mean I wasn’t supporting them.”

Rust urged the department to organize a town hall meeting later in the month to begin a dialogue.

Protesters did complain about Rust’s corrections reports Inside Higher Ed.  In addition, Call2Action’s letter accused the professor and classmates of repeatedly questioning their “epistemological and methodological commitments.”

The statement accuses “the professor” (it does not identify Rust by name) of correcting “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies” and “repeatedly questioning the value of our work on social identity and the related dynamics of oppression, power and privilege.” The “barrage of questions by white colleagues and the grammar ‘lessons’ by the professor have contributed to a hostile class climate,” it continues.

“Students consistently report hostile classroom environments in which the effects of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and other forms of institutionalized oppression have manifested within the department and deride our intellectual capacity, methodological rigor, and ideological legitimacy,” charges Call2Action’s online petition.

“Many of us have been through the formal complaint system of leveraging charges … the letters are reviewed, and we receive responses saying (the) charges have no merit,” said Kenjus Watson, a graduate student researching black men and microaggressions in higher education. Some have questioned his research as “too subjective,” he said. (I’ll be microaggressive and point out that “leveraging” is the wrong word. He must mean “leveling.”)

Many current and former students defended Rust, saying he was singled out unfairly. The sit-in was a “mean-spirited circus that creates exactly the hostile and toxic environment” the demonstrators claim to be fighting against, wrote Stephanie Kim, a graduate student who works with Rust, in the Daily Bruin. “

As a woman of color, I am deeply saddened that my adviser and mentor for the last five years, Rust, was unjustly demonized as the symbol of white male oppression as a cheap way of arousing public support.

Call2Action is demanding more black and Latino professors, a streamlined complaint procedure, etc. But what they really want is an end to “questioning” of their ideas, research methods, values — and grammar. That would be a toxic victory.

College: Where free speech goes to die


Greg Lukianoff talks with Nick Gillespie on Reason TV.

Universities no longer encourage students to debate, disagree and dissent, writes Greg Lukianoff in Unlearning Liberty. Someone might feel uncomfortable.

As president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Lukianoff has spent more than a decade fighting against censorship, speech codes, sex codes, intrusive “orientations,” mandatory “dispositions” and other checks on free expression. FIRE has defended students, professors and staffers who’ve fallen afoul of campus groupthink. One student was suspended for a cartoon protesting the decision to build an expensive new parking garage.

Just recently, DePaul put a student on probation for publicizing the names of students who admitted to vandalizing  a pro-life display. Kristopher Del Campo was found responsible for “disorderly, violent, intimidating or dangerous” behavior, which includes “creat[ing] a substantial risk of physical harm,” “causing significant emotional harm,” and “bullying,” because he named 13 admitted vandals on his group’s web site.

Unlearning Liberty explains that “free speech is important because debate is important” and debate is “the key tool of deliberative democracies,” writes Harry Lewis, dean of Harvard College

If we don’t train our students to argue with each other, without crying foul every time one side hurts the other’s feelings, we will wind up with … a dysfunctional Congress, maybe?

College graduates “will carry their conformist attitudes and unexamined political beliefs with them into their professions,” writes Bruce Thornton in College: Where Free Speech Goes to Die.

College students never have to leave the “echo chambers” of their own minds, writes Lukianoff.

 Instead, they have been subjected to a curriculum and campus life focused on “rewarding groupthink, punishing devil’s advocates, and shutting down discussions on some of the hottest and most important topics of the day.”

A “lifelong Democrat,” Lukianoff has worked for the ACLU and an environmental justice group. He backs gay marriage, abortion rights, legalizing marijuana, universal health care, etc. He belongs to a Brooklyn food co-op. Yet administrators and students assume that a defender of free speech must be a conservative — and a “fringe” conservative at that, he writes. It’s another way of shutting down debate.

‘Harassment’ rules threaten free speech

“Overly broad harassment codes remain the weapon of choice on campus to punish speech that administrators dislike,” writes Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in the Washington Post op-ed.

In a decade fighting campus censorship, I have seen harassment defined as expressions as mild as “inappropriately directed laughter” and used to police students for references to a student government candidate as a “jerk and a fool” (at the University of Central Florida in 2006) and a factually verifiable if unflattering piece on Islamic extremism in a conservative student magazine (at Tufts University in 2007). Other examples abound. Worryingly, such broad codes and heavy-handed enforcement are teaching a generation of students that it may be safer to keep their mouths shut when important or controversial issues arise. Such illiberal lessons on how to live in a free society are poison to freewheeling debate and thought experimentation and, therefore, to the innovative thinking that both higher education and our democracy need.

In April, the Office of Civil Rights told colleges to use “the lowest possible standard of evidence” in sexual harassment and assault cases, Lukianoff writes. “The letter makes no mention of the First Amendment or free speech.”

In the 1999 case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court defined harassment as discriminatory conduct, directed at an individual, that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that “victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” FIRE and other groups want OCR to adopt the Davis definition of harassment.

 

Teaching students to argue about politics

Students should learn how to discuss controversial political ideas in class, says Diana Hess, a teacher turned University of Wisconsin education professor, in Discussions That Drive Democracy.

“A lot of parents want schools to reflect their own ideological views,” Hess tells The Cap Times.

“I argue that parents shouldn’t want that. If they do, they need to rethink why they have their kids in school.”

. . . “It’s not to suggest schools should be working against parents’ values,” she continues, “but we want schools to be ideologically diverse places. That’s how we educate citizens.”

“Many teachers I have watched are good at getting kids to listen to viewpoints that are different from theirs, and that’s a good thing,” she says. Young people tend to be open to new ideas.

Will teachers develop students’ minds? Or indoctrinate students in liberal ideology? asks Ann Althouse, a UW law professor.

. . .  it was specifically teachers who were at the core of the Wisconsin protests, vilifying conservatives.

And as for parents needing “to rethink why they have their kids in school.” Let’s be clear: Schooling is compulsory. . . . Teachers should never forget that they have their students trapped in their classroom by the force of law.

We want students to learn how to discuss “controversial issues, support their arguments, and listen to divergent opinions respectfully and critically,” Althouse concedes.

But it takes a certain level of trust — which is in short supply.

Taliban is too hot to debate

Virginia eighth-graders won’t argue the Taliban’s point of view in a mock UN debate, reports the Washington Post.  Swanson Middle School Principal Chrystal Forrester canceled the debate after some parents objected. (Among other things, parents feared kids searching for information would end up at extremist web sites.)

“Recognizing the pain that has touched many of our families and neighbors due to the terrorist attacks on the United States and acknowledging the sensitive nature of the conflict in Afghanistan involving many of our dedicated members of the U.S. armed forces, we have eliminated this topic as part of the U.N. unit of study effective immediately,” the e-mail said.

In addition to the Afghanistan conflict, students were asked to discuss:  China and Taiwan; India and Pakistan; North Korea vs. Western powers; Russia and Chechnya; and Colombia vs. the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

In debate, students often are assigned to argue cases they don’t agree with. They have to work a bit harder.

At Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio agrees with Post columnist Robert McCartney: The kids could have handled it.

In other news, a Pakistani comedy troupe has produced its version of a Taliban soap opera to “fight terrorism with humor.”