Column: Loyola needs place for debate
Published: Thursday, March 15, 2012
Updated: Thursday, March 15, 2012 10:03
People often call me contrarian. While not meant as a compliment, I embrace the title. I enjoy debate if only for debate’s sake. I like arguing, but I like winning arguments more. I’m also willing to defend the practice of intellectual disagreement as an effective method of learning and theoretical development beyond a cheap adrenaline rush.
Competition can be beneficial and even necessary for improvement and innovation to occur. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution explains well the functional but messy process of adaptation in the biophysical world. Animals do not develop functional traits and strategies spontaneously. Competitive survival and sexual selection filter populations geared for surviving particular circumstances.
Political economist Joseph Schumpeter described market economies similarly. New technologies are not always and everywhere welfare enhancing. They tend to cause “gales of creative destruction.” Old products and practices go bankrupt, leaving room for new and more value-generative forms.
Thomas Kuhn suggested a similar framework for understanding the process of scientific knowledge. Paradigms do not linearly progress when uncontested. Science is revolutionary and sometimes revolutions hurt.
Aside from being enjoyable for contrarians like myself, the battle of ideas is a necessary component for the improved quality of ideas. When one’s beliefs are under attack, weaknesses in the chain of logic get exposed. These are teachable moments.
So why are there so few debates on campus? I don’t mean to imply a flaw in our university’s culture. It could simply be that many have forgotten or ignore the beneficial role of competition.
I invite readers to think through a basic hypothetical comparison. On the one hand, imagine a university where faculty members only organize events and programs to express solidarity and commitment to agreed-upon topics. How does learning occur in this process? What sorts of ideas get expressed? How do changes occur, and how are intellectual innovations encouraged? What level of enthusiasm motivates students and faculty to pursue intellectual curiosity?
Now imagine an opposite campus environment, perhaps to the extreme. What if faculty only organized formal events and programs surrounding issues of disagreement and conflict? What if the only intellectual presentations on campus were debates? Upon reflection, it seems that the cultural climate of the first university would serve as an obstacle to the potential of the latter. While the latter scenario is no guarantee to the quality of content, nor learning outcomes therein, it at least does not preclude solidarity or agreement.
But, the latter seems a difficult circumstance to cultivate. It would require a committed culture of intellectual tolerance. Faculty would have to engage rather than dismiss intellectual opposition. They would have to take charitable interpretations of their opponents and remain polite and courteous to the identity of individuals who hold contrary positions. Good people often believe bad ideas. Open intellectualism requires a clear and continual separation between ideas and identities. Sometimes our humanity stands in the way of our understanding the human condition.
Again, I am uncertain which particular conditions have led to low levels of debate on our campus, but I am eager to make strides towards improvement. While various opportunities abound for faculty and students to express solidarity and agreement on key social topics, few opportunities exist for the expression of competing opinions.
Loyola hosts no student organization specifically dedicated to the art of debate. Thus far this academic year, Loyola Students for Civic Engagement relegated itself to a “panel discussion” on the topic of condom and contraceptive distribution at Loyola. For time constraints, students were limited from asking questions. Faculty members slotted to debate the causes of wage disparity between men and women respectfully cancelled their event. In my view, these teachable moments were missed opportunities. As faculty moderator of the economics club, I would like to offer the organization’s calendar as an open and continual opportunity for any motivated faculty or students seeking a forum to debate any topic or issues of social relevance.
Daniel J. D’Amico is an assistant professor for the College of Business. He can be reached at email@example.com
On the Record is a weekly column open to any member of Loyola’s faculty and staff. Those interested in contributing can contact firstname.lastname@example.org