Healthy discourse

Hall, James

Among the many prerequisites enjoyed by students of a residential college of liberal arts and sciences is the seemingly uninterrupted access to forums of academic discussion. From the classroom to the cafeteria to the common room couch, a discussion of “Gott und die Welt” can spring up without warning between friends, classmates, or total strangers. Lawrence offers a unique catalyst to this phenomenon in its Freshman Studies program, where small groups of students from diverse backgrounds gather to discuss influential works such as Plato’s Republic and Chuang Tzu’s Basic Writings. After two terms of Freshman Studies, a Lawrentian should have not only a basic knowledge of the works covered, but a grasp of how to participate in academic discourse. In other words, what we study is only as important as how we interact.
In past issues, The Lawrentian has done a commendable job of publishing minimally censored student opinions, whether tame or controversial. The effect of a controversial article upon the Lawrence campus should be to spark impassioned and intelligent discussion. Recent responses to articles on altruism, religion, and political issues, however, (e.g. “You’re a jerk” and “Nobody asked for your opinion”) have shown an excess of passion and an absence of intelligence. Coherent oral debate has given way to simple exchanges of sneers and insults. Well-presented written response has been replaced by knee-jerk ad hominem argument.
The cure for this malady is not simple or easy. Rather, it is the very ease of the verbal or written attack that makes it so appealing. Lawrentians have an obligation to themselves and their peers to responsibly represent their opinions, whether atheist, objectivist, fundamentalist, or revolutionist.
Could the trend of ad hominem argument at Lawrence be a byproduct of a class that presents extreme points of view in relatively little depth? Is enough emphasis placed in the Freshman Studies classroom on the reconciliation of differing points of view, rather than the blind presentation of opposites and extremes? In cases of seemingly irresolvable disputes, can fundamental differences in worldview be sifted from the talk of caves, shadows, the hinge of the way, and dreams about butterflies? Freshman Studies is a great course, and deservedly a pride of the university. If its curriculum actively promotes a healthier approach to discourse, perhaps an environment even more conducive to the achievement of Lawrence’s mission to “promote tolerance and understanding” can be nurtured. Only when we have put the art of intelligent discourse into practice will Lawrence’s leftists, republicans, Platonists, Taoists, nihilists, and Adventists be able to fully enjoy the privileges of a liberal arts education.