Simulated Public Argument as a Pedagogical Play on Worlds

By Mitchell, Gordon R. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Simulated Public Argument as a Pedagogical Play on Worlds


Mitchell, Gordon R., Argumentation and Advocacy


The teacher sits at the head of the classroom, feeling pleased with herself and her class. The students are engaged in a heated debate. The very noise level reassures the teacher that the students are participating, taking responsibility for their own learning. Education is going on. The class is a success. But look again... On closer inspection, you notice that only a few students are participating in the debate; the majority of the class is sitting silently, maybe attentive but perhaps either indifferent or actively turned off. And the students who are arguing are not addressing the subtleties, nuances, or complexities of the points they are making or disputing. They do not have that luxury because they want to win the argument-so they must go for the most gross and dramatic statements they can muster. They will not concede an opponent's point, even if they can see its validity, because that would weaken their position. Anyone tempted to synthesize the varying views would not dare to do so because it would look like a "cop-out," an inability to take a stand.

-Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture (pp. 256-57)

In her recent book, sociolinguist Deborah Tannen provides this vignette from a debate held in Patricia Rosof's high school history class, to underscore the limitations of traditional "agonistic" and "adversarial" models of argument pedagogy. According to Tannen, the "ethic of aggression" (1998, p. 22) instilled through such teaching has resulted in widespread "slash and bum thinking" (p. 19) in educational contexts and the culture at large. Tannen spends much of her book chronicling the symptoms of this malaise: proliferation of war metaphors in public discourse, exclusion of women from deliberative spaces, and widespread citizen alienation from public life, to name a few. Tannen's objections to the zero-sum, either-or logic of typical debate training raise serious questions about the merits of traditional argument pedagogy. However, argumentation teachers will be pleased to note that in the end, Tannen is not entirely hostile to their craft. "My aim is not to put a stop to the adversarial paradigm, the doub ting game, debate-but to diversity," she writes in the conclusion of The Argument Culture;, "Like a well-balanced stock portfolio, we need more than one path to the goal we seek" (p. 276).

Rather than reading Tannen's book as a lethal indictment of adversarial debate models, it is more constructive to take her work as a cue to invent and refine new forms of teaching designed to supplement traditional methods of debate instruction. Indeed, this would appear to be a crucial task in the present environment, since it is a safe bet that in the coming years, there will be a growing need for schools to provide the necessary learning experiences for students to navigate their ways through the dense and complicated terrain of contemporary public arguments. It is likely that this need will intensify as the challenges of citizenship and political participation grow more complex in our era of rapid technological and social change. In the context of higher education, Gerard Delanty made this point recently, suggesting that "[u]niversities must recapture a sense of public commitment... [t]he university is an institution of the public sphere; it is not above civil society but a part of its cultural tradition , in particular it is a part of the public sphere and its tradition of debate and reflection" (1998, p. 22). This observation carries with it weighty pedagogical responsibilities, since the ripples of today's teaching efforts will undulate far into the future, as citizens draw upon their schooling experiences to shape their contributions to the public arguments of tomorrow.

Working toward development of argumentation pedagogies designed to complement traditional modes of debate teaching, in this essay, I explore role-play simulation as an exercise that promises to deliver uniquely valuable opportunities for learning about the dynamics of public argument. …

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