Singin songs and a carryin’ signs.

Mostly say “hooray for our side”

Stop. Hey, what’s that sound?

It’s the sound of –

    • Most bloggers and tweeters speaking only to their allies in a bubble.
    • Not of “argument” but “cherrypicking facts” to support immovable strong opinions
    • attempts to persuade not discuss
    • endless ad hominem and snarky remarks
    • heat not light.

Ah, but stubbornness masquerading as reasoned conviction – and its cousin, “confirmation bias” – is an old song. Here is Francis Bacon, from 400 years ago:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate…

And such is the way of all superstition… wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happen much oftener, neglect and pass them by. But with far more subtlety does this mischief insinuate itself into philosophy and the sciences; in which the first conclusion colors and brings into conformity with itself all that come after, though far sounder and better.

Besides… it is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human intellect to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives; whereas it ought properly to hold itself indifferently disposed toward both alike.

Here is Lichtenberg, succinctly, over 200 years ago: We accumulate our opinions at an age when our understanding is at its weakest.

Here is Nietzsche over 100 years ago:

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently. There are two different types of people in the world, those who want to know, and those who want to believe.

 Where am I going with this? The Common Core, and educational discourse (or lack of it) in the blogosphere.

The Common Core on argument. Let’s remind ourselves of Appendix A of the Common Core ELA Standards, in which the nature of argument – as contrasted with persuasion – is described:

… the Standards put particular emphasis on students’ ability to write sound arguments on substantive topics and issues, as this ability is critical to college and career readiness… When teachers ask students to consider two or more perspectives on a topic or issue, something far beyond surface knowledge is required: students must think critically and deeply, assess the validity of their own thinking, and anticipate counterclaims in opposition to their own assertions.

As part of their attempt to explain to new college students the major differences between good high school and college writing, Williams and McEnerney define argument not as “wrangling” but as “a serious and focused conversation among people who are intensely interested in getting to the bottom of things cooperatively.

As Richard Fulkerson (1996) puts it in Teaching the Argument in Writing, the proper context for thinking about argument is one “in which the goal is not victory but a good decision, one in which all arguers are at risk of needing to alter their views, one in which a participant takes seriously and fairly the views different from his or her own” (pp. 16–17).

Intensely interested in getting to the bottom of things cooperatively… At risk of needing to alter their views… takes seriously and fairly the views different from his or her own – these are phrases that not only every student and teacher ought to ponder daily: every blogger, commenter, and tweeter should ponder each time they start to hit the POST button. It is the essential achievement of a reasonable person – to question what they assert; to listen and consider intently views that differ from their own; to respond to the strengths in the other’s argument.

Here is a lovely description of this educational goal – from an Eton teacher 150 years ago:

You go to a great school. Not for knowledge as much as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual posture, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts.

I was in an elementary classroom just this week in which the kids were writing “opinion” pieces (that were meant to be “arguments” of this rational kind, as opposed to “persuasive” writing.) As much as I love this teacher, I thought calling it an “opinion” piece was an error. [Oops: a commenter reminded me that this is indeed the language of grade 5 in the Standards, so she was doing precisely what the Standards call for. My bad. But now I think the Standard is wimpy…]  This is the very error that David Coleman famously described with “No one gives a shit about your opinion or feelings” in higher-level academics or workplaces.

Ironically, Coleman himself has taken a lot of shit for saying this, but to my mind the reaction is a beautiful illustration of unthinking reaction: if you cannot acknowledge the element of truth in his crude but clear statement then you are allowing your feelings about him, his language, or your views about the Standards to over-rule reason. Because in a very obvious way his claim is true: people do not get paid for personal opinions. They get paid for real solutions.

Put differently, this distinction between argument and persuasion, while subtle, is as old as Socrates vs. the Sophists, as implied in what the Standards say in a sidebar comparing persuasive with argumentative writing:

When writing to persuade, writers employ a variety of persuasive strategies. One common strategy is an appeal to the credibility, character, or authority of the writer (or speaker). Another is an appeal to the audience’s self-interest, sense of identity, or emotions, any of which can sway an audience. A logical argument, on the other hand, convinces the audience because of the perceived merit and reasonableness of the claims and proofs offered rather than either the emotions the writing evokes in the audience or the character or credentials of the writer.

Do our students really understand this distinction? Do we as educators? (Being the only teacher in the room is a problem since students rarely hear opinions that differ from ours).

Why do people change or not change their minds? I have wondered a lot about this issue over my professional and personal lifetime: under what conditions DO we entertain and ponder the thoughts of others? Under what conditions do we go further and change our minds? How can education be better at causing this?

I well recall the student, a bright girl who went to an Ivy League college, who threw a book at me in deep frustration over this issue. I had asked students to write an editorial on a subject. But then, the next day I asked them to write two letters to the editor, taking up contrary positions in terms of the editorial. She flatly said: no, I can’t do that. When I asked why, she replied: because I have already fully considered the issue in writing my editorial. When I persisted, she threw the book.

I always thought Karl Popper’s argument about falsifiability was a beautiful one to illustrate the problem with so-called arguments. What differentiates scientific conclusion from other conclusions, he says, is that the scientist can imagine the answer being wrong – i.e. the disconfirming evidence/experiment is intelligible, even plausible. He describes this as the inherent falsifiability of a scientific statement.

However, as Popper pointed out, when arguing with Freudians, religious people or Marxists, – and, if I may say so, educators in far too many cases – there is apparently NO evidence that can ever refute their views: they have an explanation for every conceivable event, opinion, policy or practice – that just supports their existing opinions. It is just one long confirmation bias, not argument.

And isn’t that what most educational discourse and blogging these days often is?

I have changed my mind about a number of educational issues over the years. I used to think all standardized tests were nonsense. Now I think that the best ones are quite revealing and very carefully crafted – even though they do not tell us all we need to know and even though we over-use and over-value them. I used to think that good teachers were born not made. Now I think that great improvement can occur in any teacher willing to change and learn from best practice. Why did I change my mind in each case? I am not 100% sure but one key reason is that I actually studied both tests and teacher coaching directly which forced me out of my head.

There are a few famous people who have fundamentally changed their minds in public in recent decades. Interestingly, for educators, one is Diane Ravitch. She has actually spoken and written a fair amount about her changing views, as have others, including jilted former allies. But is she closer to the truth now? How would we know (especially if she is as adamant now as she was then)?

I am no different, of course. I have both changed my mind and I have views about the world that are probably unalterable in spite of facts to the contrary. For example, I have been motivated for 50 years – first as a student, then as a teacher, then as a reformer – by the view that school is needlessly boring in a big way. Is that a rational stance, amenable to being altered? Or is it simply my bias, destined to be my view regardless of the facts on the ground which I cherry pick? And about what are you unyielding? And might you be conflating “principled” with “stubborn”? How would you or we know?

Can you imagine yourself being wrong? Here is a simple test: can you state the argument of the “other” side with clarity and depth? Can you empathize with your opponents’ views enough to present the strongest case for them? (Recall that empathy as opposed to sympathy means deliberately putting yourself in their place mentally.) In other words, do you understand the views of those whom you think wrong?

This is why I think debate, role-play, and Socratic Seminar are essential pedagogies in any rigorous classroom. In fact, the best lesson I ever taught was to design a FAIR trial of Socrates while we were reading the Apology, ensuring that those on the side of putting him to death had a lot of compelling evidence (courtesy of I. F. Stone and Aristophanes). It was truly dramatic; it was unclear until the vote who would win. Indeed, Socrates was put to death, again. And the uproar continued in and out of class for days, with the losing defense attorneys pleading for a re-trial.

This is also why reading non-fiction is an essential activity, as the Common Core stresses. In private reading you can without harm to ego question your own views and safely explore new ideas that you might not wish to do publicly.

Some wise words, again, from Francis Bacon:

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

What writings have done this for you?

So, readers, let’s discuss this prompt and model such thinking: I used to think…Now I think… and try to openly and honestly explain why we changed our minds about some important educational issue. And for those of you who blog and comment in an unendingly rigid and closed-minded way – you know who you are – how about a little intellectual empathy and less cherry-picking of the evidence?


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