Here on the day of the final 2020 presidential debate, we look back on what it was that made the first debate so disastrous, and how this school is training a generation to learn how to argue well.
In this article, we talked to the Veritas Dean of Students and Rhetoric and Omnibus teacher Graham Dennis about what should make a good debate, the ways that Veritas specifically trains students to know how to disagree respectfully and debate productively, and what it would mean for our society if more of our citizens were likewise trained and practiced.
In a nation as divided as America is today, one thing that recently brought many of us together on common ground was something often meant to highlight our divisions: that is, the first presidential debate.
What was that common ground upon which so many Americans from both ends of the political spectrum stood? The agreement that the debate was nothing short of a debacle.
For the future of our country, and for the sake of our children and grandchildren, we need to train our next generation to do better. We must send young adults into our culture who are able to engage challenging issues and differing opinions with grace, clarity, and purpose.
This begins, in part, with an education that hones these skills, so that this generation will expect and practice productive discourse in the midst of discord. The centuries-old classical education model seeks to do just that.
In order to develop our children into adults and active citizens who expect decorum, value truth, and carry themselves with poise, confidence, and respect, then we have a responsibility to give them the tools and habits necessary to form these traits.
Logic and Rhetoric
In the classical model, we place a high value on training up young people to be critical thinkers and compelling communicators. In order to achieve that purpose, we teach according to a student’s developmental stages -- giving them the facts first, then teaching them how to think and reason through that information, and finally perfecting the art of communicating truth gracefully and persuasively.
There's a certain point at which children are no longer satisfied with a simple answer, but want to know “why.” We call it the Logic stage, and in a classical Christian school it is during this phase that classes and discussions focus upon developing and mastering the skills of critical thinking and debate. At Veritas, this begins in seventh grade.
As middle schoolers, kids naturally desire debate but they don’t know how to do it well. That’s where habit and practice come into play. We develop this ability in a way that seeks to form students into good citizens, as well as good church members, parents, leaders, spouses, and employees.
Practice Makes Perfect: Allowing Students Ample Opportunity to Argue
How do we do it? We have regular discussions in our cornerstone classes (called Omnibus) in which students tackle debatable issues. They have to learn to disagree with one another gracefully, and in so doing articulate their positions with clarity and humility.
Beginning in 10th grade, we build this structurally into the curriculum as students enter the Rhetoric stage of their education, where they regularly must craft essays and present theses following the pattern of persuasion called the Classical Discourse. Making logic and rhetoric an integral part of our school’s curriculum means that there is an expectation that each student has developed the ability to argue well by the time he or she graduates.
Teaching Proper Debate: Structure and Purpose
But what exactly does it mean to “argue well?” While most viewers could easily proclaim that the first presidential debate was dismal, many people may not be able to articulate what makes a “good debate.”
That’s an important distinction, because without understanding what a proper debate should look like, we have no standard to know what went wrong. We must teach our young people to recognize and apply the principles of good debate. This starts with structure and purpose.
Structure of a Debate
First of all, a good debate needs a structure. Each participant should establish clear thesis statements on the topics being discussed, and each participant should be expected to present justifications (in the form of evidence) of the theses. Built into this structure ought to be the opportunity for each opponent to state his position clearly, without equivocation, and give the other side the opportunity to ask clarifying questions. The greater the clarity, the more capable the audience is of making thoughtful and informed judgments.
The senior class at Veritas understands this well. When asked what they thought about the first presidential debate, and what they observed going wrong, senior Laura Cochran said “it just wasn’t a proper debate structure. They should have allowed opening statements, rebuttals, and cross-examination portions for the candidates.”
Want to read more from our seniors? Three 12th graders composed letters to the editor and submitted them to LNP discussing their observations of the Presidential debate and what we can learn about productive discourse from it.
Purpose of Debate: Truth and Sharpening
Next comes the issue of purpose, which in a good debate is twofold. The first purpose in a debate is for the participants and viewers to arrive at the truth. Debating is not an end in itself, but a useful tool for arriving at the truth.
The second purpose is to provide the opportunity to hone our understanding of the issues being addressed. We must teach our children the art of being able to disagree with someone in such a way that their own position is clarified. Proverbs calls this “iron sharpening iron.” Sometimes the best way for us to understand how to articulate our own position is to have someone who is a really good critic of that position challenge it. In this way, our opponent becomes an ally in helping us to clarify our own position.
Maintaining Respect and Relationships
This type of perspective shift can be challenging, especially when we are disagreeing on emotional and fundamental issues. Many Americans struggle with the following question: “Can I disagree with someone and still maintain a friendship?”
We often presuppose that friendship must mean agreement. But that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, disagreement is an integral part of our best relationships. We must learn to do it well because it doesn’t often come naturally.
Our Logic teacher, Pam Carlson, must reiterate time and again to her 7th and 8th grade students, “stick to answering the question, not attacking the person.” Moreover, our savior, Jesus Christ, often challenged his own disciples, pushing them to see the inadequacy of their own understanding on a particular issue, or even radically transforming their perspective.
It can be challenging to create a culture among students that is so counterintuitive to our popular culture. Meeting this challenge begins with sheer volume of practice. We must give students ample time to put good debate, reasoning, and critical thinking skills into practice. As they get used to doing it and discover that they can disagree and still be friends, fruitful disagreement can become a healthy and productive part of their Christian life.
Laura Cochran recalled a particularly heated theological debate their class wrangled with back in eighth grade. Long after the tempers cooled, now four years later, nearly every member of the senior class has held onto and continually puts into practice the life lessons from that experience.
"We learned that passion isn’t everything, and delivery is an important part of an effective argument,” Laura recalled. “If you want the other side to have an open-mindedness to take in what you’re saying, delivery is a big part. It's even applied to trivial conversations we have as friends."
It’s like anything else we may find difficult. For example, consider long distance running. When we first want to start getting into shape by running, it may be hard to imagine running five miles. Sure, we might have the native ability, but we can’t just go out and do it at the beginning. So we work our way up to five miles and eventually, with enough practice, get to the point where we actually enjoy running five miles or even more.
Tackle Tough Topics Head On
And so, beginning with logic classes (required for all 7th and 8th graders) students get ample practice applying critical thinking principles and reasoning skills. We read difficult and often controversial texts, like The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. We want to understand, for example, how masses of decent German people could get caught up into Hitler’s trap (after all, we know that all Germans who became Nazis were certainly not little Hitlers as children).
Diving into historical texts like these helps our students understand how someone could arrive at that place - and it also helps to arm us against getting there ourselves. We’re working, in a developmentally appropriate way, to help our students encounter a world that will increasingly be hostile to the central tenets of their faith.
At Veritas, we have students and families who represent a variety of viewpoints on many theological, political, and social issues. We don’t shy away from discussions that might highlight these differences. We are especially intentional about encouraging these discussions as students grow into the upper grades. As they are preparing to go off to college or the workforce, they will soon have to decide how they’re going to live out their faith in the world.
It is worrisome that, in our culture, we either think we have to be friends that never disagree, or hostile enemies that shout each other down. We don’t have a habit of friendly, profitable disagreement, and that becomes all the more evident during contentious political seasons like this one.
Educating Our Citizens
So, what would it look like if an entire generation of Americans were classically educated?
First of all, we would expect greater decorum and productive discourse from our leaders. We would be horrified by a debate that didn’t aim for the standard of discourse and decorum, say, of the famous Lincoln-Douglass debates. One of the reasons that we tend to be tolerant of this behavior is that we don’t know what to expect in a debate.
We’ve come to expect politics to be a game of mudslinging. Of course, we could argue that it’s always been that way. But what we’ve come to expect is actually a result of our education. If people are not educated, even habituated, in such a way that they expect political and cultural debate to be respectful and productive, then it’s hard for the outcry to be significant enough to change our public discourse.
However, this is to be expected because most of our citizens perceive truth through the profoundly clouded lenses of entertainment and mass media. Both Plato and Augustine famously observed that it’s difficult for a civilization to know the truth when it is dressed in the language of entertainment and corrupt political persuasion. If we don’t have a standard by which to judge our entertainers and politicians, eventually we will come to think that truth is just propaganda, and it’s simply a matter of who disseminates it most effectively.
We have a responsibility in our schools, now, to provide patterns for students to have rigorous expectations for discovering, discerning, and disseminating the truth. As that movement grows, we’ll produce students who are not tolerant of propaganda, shrewd in discovering and discerning the truth, and more apt to engage in productive public discourse.
Do you want an education that not only equips your children with knowledge, but also trains them to think critically and communicate winsomely, so they can engage the culture around them for good?
We welcome you to come visit Veritas Academy and see the difference of classical Christian Education first hand. Talk to our students, watch our teachers and classes in action, and discover how Veritas is training a generation of influencers for truth, beauty, and goodness.
Our first Group Tour of the year is scheduled for Wednesday, November 4!
Click the button to RSVP for a school tour or call us at (717) 556-0690 for more information.