Just the other day, I was meeting with a student in preparation for a “debate day” on same-sex marriage for a course on Catholic Social Teaching, and the strangest thing happened. Upon receiving a randomly assigned position to defend, this student responded with serious concern on her face, “I don’t think I can do this. I couldn’t defend this position.” She wasn’t faking. This Catholic student, seemed honestly concerned that defending the Church’s position on same-sex marriage would violate her conscience. Her mind could not tolerate what seemed like such an intolerant teaching. Wow! I thought maybe a Catholic student would have trouble taking up the arguments in favor of same-sex marriage, but I found the exact opposite. A shock indeed.
So now I had a difficult situation.Was I going to ask a student to violate her conscience by defending the Catholic Church’s position in a mock debate? Consider where our students’ consciences must be, if they think it intolerant to even consider the reasonableness of the Catholic Church’s position on the topic of same-sex marriage. This student’s claim is not an isolated incident. My students’s consciences are unfortunately malformed. What could I do? I had to appeal to a word I knew would resonate with her…”tolerance.” I appealed to her great desire to be tolerant. True tolerance, I explained, asks us to care enough about the other to actually listen to that person’s best reasons for thinking what they think. Even if understanding those reasons only reaffirms one’s original commitment, knowing them is a moral and intellectual duty. Knowing the best, most reasonable arguments for “the other’s” side humanizes that other, prevents us from placing them in the “bigot” box. I reminded her about the Franciscan charism of the University, which tries to enact Francis’s prayer “to understand rather than to be understood. I reminded her about the theological method of Aquinas, who listed every objection to his position before even expressing his own thought. I encouraged her to have the same kind of intellectual disinterest I attempted to demonstrate in class. With a sigh, the student agreed to her task. We’ll see how the debate day goes.
“Debate Days” are nothing new to solid moral theological pedagogy, but successful debate days are the real trick. Success seems entirely contingent on preparation. Here are some best practices that have led to success:
1. Don’t make the students go hunting for arguments. Give them readable, compelling sources for all sides of the debated questions. Furthermore, everyone reads both sides of the argument. This allows students to anticipate the objections from the other side. If students want to do more reading on their own, I encourage that. I just don’t want to send them out into a world of ad hominem attacks, red herrings, and all other manners of fallacies.
2. Ask the right questions. I give the students context questions to answer before giving the arguments themselves. Otherwise, they don’t really understand what is actually up for debate and what the payoff is if either side really is the truth. For example, “what’s at stake in this debate?” Why bother debating this question at all? What social and personal consequences result from either side being identified as the truth? Might these consequences blind us to honestly considering the truth of the arguments? If so, how or why? Do you personally have anything at stake in this debate? When it comes tot he arguments themselves, I ask the students not only to find them, but to rank them and put them in categories: natural law, Scripture, social science, consequentialist, etc.
3. Know the assumptions. Many times, students don’t realize why a person won’t accept what seems like a valid argument. Many times it’s because the person doesn’t accept an assumption or premise of the argument. For example, I ask students to consider whether and how the Christian, Catholic, or secular commitments/assumptions of a given author affects what kind of arguments he or she can or will make and/or accept as true when it comes to same-sex marriage. When student stop expecting the atheist to accept Genesis 2 as evidence for what is demonstrable without Genesis 2, we’ve already made a lot of headway toward having a good debate.
4. Written responses! Students articulate themselves so much better orally when they’ve been force to articulate the same ideas in writing. I’ve tried debates with “notes,” and with written statements to be turned in. The latter was more successful.
5. Be a good Referee. One of the most important things I do on the debate day is referee the arguments. I often stop to ask whether someone on the “other side” can restate the argument they’ve just heard. Misunderstanding is among the greatest problems preventing a good debate.
6. Invite other faculty. If possible, I like to make the debate days one of my “faculty assessment days.” Hopefully this demonstrates my ability to prepare students for and treat difficulty issues faithfully and in a way that respects all parties and positions. It can be a risk, but the extra pressure tends to motivate me to help the students (and myself) prepare better. I’ve had faculty give great substantive feedback for these debate days. Students also report them as among their favorite class days.
7. Clear expectations and prime the pump. First of all, students need to know the purpose of debating. It is to arrive at the truth! Too many students come to class assuming that debates are merely “informative.” In other words, they think debates are good as a kind of intellectual buffet that presents all the “preferences” or “opinions” they might choose from. A debater is seen as “good” if he passionately, attractively, and clearly “stands up for what he believes”—-regardless of whether it’s true. Truth is not an important question for them to ask, generally. Unfortunately, they don’t know what the criteria for truth are. They are afraid of making a truth claim in many cases. they just want the intellectual buffet of diversity. This is dangerously problematic. Debates require diversity, but they are not for the sake of diversity. Diversity comes together for the sake of a better shot at finding the truth and being conformed to that truth if it can be found. In the classes leading up to the debate, I am getting them ready with mini-debates in class. I might debate myself out loud, for example. I might have them read a debate or watch a debate. Also, I introduce the moral principles that will be at stake in the debate so they don’t get thrown into the deep end without a life jacket (let alone the ability to swim).
8. Finally, emphasize the outcomes you want: (1) knowing and articulating the best arguments from each side; (2) convincing students that the Church actually has reasonable (even compelling?) arguments for its positions; (3) and discovering that we can attempt to persuade each other about the truth while remaining civil and friendly.
These are just 8 practices I use. I have a lot to learn about using the debate format in class. I’d love to hear from others.