KNAYSI: Debatable debates

Arguments, when conducted courteously and open-mindedly, are an excellent means of informal learning

“I’d probably rank James Joyce’s Ulysses as mid-tier crap,” she said.

“But it’s considered one of the greatest novels ever written,” I responded.

“I’ve read it. You haven’t. You have nothing to say on this,” she shot back.

“Well, okay. But it disappoints me that an English major like yourself dismisses a
brilliant work of art just because it’s unfamiliar,” I finished.

As someone who habitually pursues argument, I experience this type of dead-ended exchange more frequently than I would like.

If fall 2013 is your first semester as a student, welcome to the University of Virginia. You have four years of intelligent and stimulating discussion ahead if you desire it. As you begin, I warn you of a negative tendency in the University’s student intellectual culture, a common phenomenon where an argument between two students devolves into a battle of egos rather than a genuine learning experience.

Though the tendencies appear in informal environments (dorm rooms, bars, sidewalks), they have become close-to-institutionalized in our student organizations, particularly our distinguished debating societies.

To clarify, I believe these are merely bad habits, not deep-rooted flaws. The generalization that student debate is often about ego and domination rather than learning does not apply to all people and situations. But such pathologies of debate still surface at our University, and so we must be vigilant about detecting these habits in ourselves.

Argumentation holds a special place in college life. Putting aside the growing infatuation with post-graduate job prospects, the Western university is traditionally regarded as a place where a young mind goes to be educated—to hone critical thinking skills and gain knowledge about itself, others and the world. Learning is not limited to lecture halls or textbooks. It also involves exchanging ideas with other students, often in highly informal settings. In my experience, some of the best insights in recent memory were gained from late-night chats on a dorm room floor or drunken philosophizing at a friend’s apartment.

First popularized in Plato’s dialogues, the Socratic method of discourse created a foundation for informative argument. This dialectical method involves two or more people with different points of view, working together via reasoned arguments to establish “truth” on a topic. In more concise terms: argument serves as a joint learning project.

Next time you observe two University students arguing on any common topic (such as politics, music or romance) see how the exchange compares with the ideal of Socratic dialogue. We often fall far short of what argument should be. We opt instead for personal attacks, domination through forcefulness of assertion, or just a general failure to listen to one another.

Just yesterday I heard two intelligent students arguing about the future of the Affordable Care Act. It was less a conversation than a series of interrupted monologues, and neither person responded to (or, I suspect, even considered) the statistics, nuances in policy or historical intricacies his conversation partner cited about the health-care system. If they had approached the encounter as a joint exercise in learning rather than a chance to affirm their own ideas, they might have built some common ground. Each party could leave the conversation with a point of view that better accounts for the complex scientific, social, economic and political forces inherent in the issue.

Though the tendency to elevate ego over informed argument appears throughout student life, it seems to be somewhat institutionalized in some of the University’s finest student organizations. Take the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, arguably one of our college’s most important concentrations of student intellectual life. In a (highly unscientific) poll, I asked about a dozen current members for their opinion on the state of argumentation within the society. They consistently reported dissatisfaction. Most noted a downward trend in the debating experience in the past one to two years: less respectful, substantive dialogue and more dominating, self-promoting behaviors.

At its best, argument is a way to learn. It should allow us to challenge our assumptions, identify gaps in reasoning, exchange information and build critical-thinking skills. To alleviate the increasing trend toward ego and domination, we must be critical of our own practices and motivations. So as you begin your next four years, fight the tendency to prioritize opinion over evidence or to substitute forceful assertions for thoughtful questions. In the spirit of Mr. Jefferson’s idea of the lifelong student, we all have more to learn.

George Knaysi’s columns appear Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

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