Sunday, May 6, 2012

Informed Disagreement

In the 30s and 40s, a group of students who were self identified Trotskyists used to gather at City College in NY.  They researched and argued, not only with capitalists, their obvious opponents, but with Stalinists, who the Trotskyists vociferously opposed.  They read and studied, analyzing their own views, trying to determine, for example, if Marxism and Trotskyism inescapably led to Stalinism.  This process itself led to a constant analysis of whether or not their views could stand up to both argument and history.  Self examination could lead to the conclusion that everything you thought was wrong.  It was the informed exchange of ideas that allowed you to base your world view on facts, not dogma.

In the 60s what became known as the "New Left" repeated the process.  The Port Huron Statement was the result of their discussion and, although the leaders of the movement attempted to justify their arguments with research and debate, their conclusions destroyed the need for further reasoning.  They concluded that their generation had a special place in history, that the "liberal and socialist preachments of the past are not adequate to the forms of the present".  Given this statement, what incentive was there then for a young idealist to even bother reading, studying, or arguing the texts of their opposition.

We see the result now, that there is little reasoned argument.  You can't argue the tenets of Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill if your opponent has never heard of them, read them, or rejects the very idea that they might have some relevance.  You can't make a reasoned argument for capitalism, for example, if the response is not a rational outline of how capitalism has failed with examples and alternatives,  Instead, arguing for capitalism results in charges of greed.  Arguing for limited government is met with charges of racism and sexism.  Arguing for anything that is not espoused by the Left as it is currently constituted is met with a chorus of -isms.  Racism, sexism, homophobia, and greed are the new responses to debate.  Instead of the tradition of the New York Intellectuals of the thirties, where research and argument led to self evaluation of the views of all participants, debate has become protest.  Meetings are routinely shouted down, speakers of opposing views are denied forums to promulgate those views, and instead of a reasoned debate on the merits of the arguments, ad hominem attacks have become the order of the day, dismissing the views of the speaker due to some perceived or invented flaw in the person's character.

Mark Bauerlein summed up the problem in the following quote from his book The Dumbest Generation:

Informed rejection of the past became uninformed rejection of the past, and then complete and unworried ignorance of it.

 We see the continuing effects of this shift throughout our society.  Children are not taught the classics.  They are not asked to read Adam Smith or the founders.  They are not taught to debate ideas.  In spite of a movement to create "critical thinkers", our school systems turn out students who are anything but.  One of the basic requirements for approaching a subject critically is to know something about the subject.  You can not think critically on the advantages of a free market economy versus a controlled economy if you have no concept of how each system works, and students who have gone years without actually reading a complete book have no basis for educating themselves should the need arise.  They are incapable of making the arguments because they know little about the subject beyond what is posted on Wikipedia.  They cannot quote the great thinkers or analyze their ideas and they have no background in real research and self education that would allow them to sit down with a stack of books and figure out what it is they are missing.

What is the solution?  If there is a solution it needs to be that those of us who were taught to think, to read, to analyze, and to argue our ideas need to stand up and shout the benefits of these teachings.  The adults in the room need to stop enabling the behavior that has led to this point.  We need to stop worrying about "self esteem" over learning, stop excusing people who refuse to make rational arguments, in fact stop allowing them a seat at the table until they come back with a rational argument.  This is not a left versus right issue.  The issue is whether we will choose a course based on reasoned argument or on street theater and riots.  We can put our collective foot down and say "Use your words", but this requires knowledge of those words and the ideas behind them, and an ability to make a reasoned argument based on the study of both sides of the debate.  We must start the process of making this happen.  They won't as they don't have the tools to do so. We didn't give them those tools.

1 comment:

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