A Thought on the Nature of Debate

It’s Saturday morning, so naturally I just wrapped up a panel discussion on school turnaround.  It never stops!

I hope folks will indulge a little bit of a diversion from our normal topic of conversation.  I want to write out loud about how important I think it is to engage often and honestly with opposing arguments.  Andy Smarick and I have a long-standing, and fairly public, disagreement over whether or not public policy and energy should be expended on turning around low performing schools.  No need to hash out the argument in its entirety, but the prior links cover a lot of it (and I will shamelessly shill for my recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article on the topic.)

In any event, Andy and I obviously have different opinions about this stuff, but we spend a lot of time publicly and privately discussing the critical policy issues.  And what I have noticed is that every time I hear him speak, his arguments get sharper, his thinking becomes more nuanced, and the data he uses become more powerful.  This in turn forces me to try to come up with (what I hope are!)  newer, sharper, and better supported arguments for my positions.

Call me crazy, but I think this is a really good thing.  There’s been a lot of talk about “epistemic closure” in the blogosphere lately, particularly in relation to US conservative ideology.  I’m sure a reader-philosopher will bash whatever pithy definition I pick for the concept, but in this context, folks are using the term to describe what happens when discussions about political philosophy and policy are confined within ideologically homogeneous groups.  Ideas never evolve.

I talk about the polarization of the education debates on this blog quite a bit, and I think a lot of that polarization has to do with this principle.  “Reformers” talk to other “reformers.”  Labor leaders talk to other labor leaders. Elite policy makers talk to other elite policy makers.  Etc.  The fact that I have to sit on a panel with Andy once in a while, listen to his arguments, see other human beings’ reactions to his arguments, and subsequently incorporate the existence of those arguments into my thoughts and intellectual frameworks is incredibly powerful.

I don’t see this happening enough in education.  There’s a whole lot of preaching to the choir going on.  It’s not good for the intellectual frameworks we all use, and it’s not good for moving the policy needle.  I don’t have an overarching theory to apply here, other than that I highly suggest periodically getting out of whatever comfort zone you happen to live in.  And now I am going to try to stop thinking about education policy for an afternoon …

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3 Responses to A Thought on the Nature of Debate

  1. Creech says:

    Could not agree with you more, Justin.

    Exhibit A on possible epistemic closure in the world of ed reform was, alas, this past week’s NewSchools summit — which was a lot of fun to be sure (epiistemic closure is fun — that’s why we do it!) — but was also absurdly self-congratulatory.

    Epistemic closure isn’t just bad for thinking — it’s the prelude to rapid meltdown. No more epistemically closed environment existed than Bear Stearns trading desks just before its house of cards collapsed.

  2. Justin Cohen says:

    I might have had that event in my head when I wrote this …

  3. Kathleen Smith says:

    Changing the status quo requires argument. When both sides are passionate, the change is usually sustainable. This means the give and take ensures that the current status quo is changed. The better the argument, the less inremental the change. Good work Justin.

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