Nevertheless, traditional school debate discourages the kind of listening and reasoning that is critical to a healthy democracy. Student debaters don’t deliberate about what they themselves believe, or should believe. They don’t cultivate the disposition to listen to others with the real possibility of changing their minds. On the contrary, they practice listening with eagle ears for opposing points to pounce on. Rather than increasing their comfort with being wrong, they can deepen an attitude of certainty.
School debate doesn’t have to be this way, though. In fact, many schools around the country are gravitating to alternative forms of debate that set the goals of truth and understanding over the goal of persuasion. A good example is the Ethics Bowl.
In the Ethics Bowl, created at the intercollegiate level in 1993 and the high school level around 2012, a team is assigned a question — not a statement or conclusion, as in traditional debate — on a contentious topic, such as “When is the use of military drones morally permissible?” The team then presents and defends whatever conclusion its deliberation has led to. An opposing team and a panel of judges pose questions and raise potential problems, to which the first team responds.
Sometimes the two teams find themselves largely in agreement. When they do, the winner is the team that does the better job of articulating its reasoning, listening and responding to questions, and advancing the collective understanding of the issue at hand.
But disagreement is frequent in the Ethics Bowl, and the discussions are spirited. That’s a good thing. After all, spirited dissent and disagreement are hallmarks of a healthy democracy. Disagreement among citizens is inevitable — about politics, morality, education, religion, nearly everything. What’s crucial is how we disagree, and how we converse and deliberate with those with whom we disagree.
It is precisely when we disagree that it is most critical for our thinking to be clear and our dialogue to be charitable and scrupulous. But disagreement is also when we’re most likely to get irritated, defensive and impatient. The more at stake in the conversation, the more difficult it is to remain poised, thoughtful, open to being wrong and ready to acknowledge fair points from the other side.
Disagreeing constructively is a skill — one of the most difficult and important there is. In encouraging students to practice this skill, the Ethics Bowl fosters what may be the most important intellectual virtue of all: openness to changing your mind.
This content was originally published here.