Ethics & Public Policy Center

Learning to Argue

Published in The Weekly Standard on December 17, 2018


In recent years we’ve seen troubling trends in young Americans’ intellectual growth. From college students’ inability or unwillingness to tolerate disagreement to the increased partisanship of political elites, American society appears to have forgotten that a bedrock practice of liberal democracy is the hurly-burly back and forth of the intellectual arena. It is not a natural inclination for the young, either; it must be taught and cultivated. Some K-12 schools are taking notice and responding by recommitting to teaching the intellectual and moral habits that allow students to enter contentious debate and to disagree agreeably with their peers in high school and afterward.

Consider BASIS Curriculum Schools. Founded in 1998 in Tucson by Michael and Olga Block with the mandate of providing rigorous instruction to enable Arizona students to compete internationally with their peers, the BASIS Curriculum Schools network now includes 27 charter schools, 5 independent schools, and 5 international schools in China and the Czech Republic. The original BASIS Curriculum model emphasized rigorous education in math and science and a lot of high-level learning in subjects considered off the beaten path for younger students, like logic, economics, and Mandarin. As a result, the network’s charters have, in the past few years, gained a reputation for excellence and now compete with some of the best schools in the country in the annual rankings in U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post. Indeed, the top five public high schools in the country, according to U.S. News, are all BASIS charter schools.

BASIS will now attempt to address the reluctance among young Americans to enter into genuine intellectual debate. In the fall of 2019, the network plans to launch a program for grades 8 through 10 at its independent school in McLean, Virginia, emphasizing liberal education. The Academy at BASIS Independent McLean, which will eventually grow into a 300-person program spanning grades 8 through 12, will include AP credit and other rigorous dimensions of the BASIS curriculum, but will add a new emphasis on humanities and seminar discussion. At the center of the program is the belief that students benefit by learning how to argue respectfully and that such an education will make them better citizens.

Peter Bezanson, chief executive officer of BASIS, reports that each history class in the new program will have 2 teachers who will convene 20 students around a seminar table. The teachers, whom Bezanson says will have different viewpoints on the historical material, will have one shared ideal: a commitment to encouraging students to debate, disagree, and discuss, and to model reasonable debate and disagreement for them.

To prepare teachers for a classroom hospitable to debate and discussion, Bezanson plans to send teachers from the BASIS Curriculum Schools network to study at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, each summer. St. John’s is the natural choice for BASIS teachers because its course of study is grounded in the twin pillars of the great books and Socratic seminars. Seminar participants sit around a table and discuss the work at hand for two hours at a time. As a former St. John’s undergraduate student, I can attest that in this environment debate and disagreement thrive. And as Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times, this is not because the St. John’s classroom is full of animosity, but because students sharpen their minds as they spend so much time interrogating texts.

Emily Langston, associate dean for graduate programs at St. John’s, says that the St. John’s classroom is based on two suppositions: “The idea that the text has something to teach us” and the fact that “we don’t all think the same thing about the text.” Indeed, “the idea that we can disagree and be respectful and, in doing so, learn from each other, is part of what community means.” Disagreement and discussion are the fabric of community, not its antithesis.

Although plans are still under consideration for the first cohort of teachers to attend in the summer of 2019, Langston has been encouraged by the interest shown by BASIS teachers in the first few days since the application process opened. “We’ve received over 50 statements of interest from their teachers in only a few days,” Langston says. It’s not only BASIS that has shown interest. A handful of institutions, including the Collegiate School in New York City, have brought in St. John’s instructors to teach their teachers. As a result, St. John’s is revamping its graduate programs and will begin offering a Certificate of Liberal Arts Education in the summer of 2019.

In addition to the regular course of study offered to all graduate students, those enrolled in the St. John’s program will take classes on classical texts on pedagogy, such as Plato’s Meno, Rousseau’s Émile, and the work of John Dewey. “We hope to have a broad influence on American K-12 education,” says Langston.

The new program at BASIS is encouraging, but one school network can only do so much. There are approximately 4 million students in the United States who entered freshman year of public high school in fall 2018 and over 56 million K-12 students. Only a handful will ever see a classroom based on the pedagogy of disagreement and debate. Bringing this model to scale is going to take some time.

The two biggest challenges to growing the number of seminar-style classrooms at the K-12 level are cost and human capital, according to Bezanson. Seminar classes are usually small—between 12 to 22 students—and including 2 teachers in each classroom comes at a huge cost to a school. Finding the right teachers also presents a challenge. “It’s hard to find teachers who are subject experts but also talented seminar leaders,” says Bezanson. “In order to be a talented seminar leader, you have to leave some of your expertise at the door so that you don’t dominate and create a quasi-lecture environment.” At the same time, these teachers aren’t merely moderators and need to “know their stuff.”

Discussion based on a text in a seminar-style format helps students achieve aptitude and high-level practice in the four grammatical skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. These are critical and essential to any further education. They’re also, in many cases, requisite for a meaningful life in literate society.

Most importantly, seminars inherently teach how to be a citizen in a liberal society by teaching participants how to weigh words, and, in doing so, practice a standard of truth and goodness. Students learn to recognize words that demonstrate the truth of a point rather than trusting the authority of the one who speaks them. This inculcates a taste for demonstrable truth and persuasive argument and a distaste for propaganda.

Seminars allow students to enter into a shared space with their peers even as they disagree. There is no sarcasm, no withholding of oneself or one’s efforts from the group, which means that two people can disagree on almost every point of interpretation about a text while still sharing something fundamental: common and equal investment in the discussion.

In the adoption of seminar-style classrooms we may find a remedy to the precarious state of current political discourse. Around the seminar table is where citizenship is best forged—face-to-face, peer-to-peer. It’s an encouraging sign that BASIS, already a leader in K-12 education, recognizes a need to train students in habits that will make them good friends, neighbors, and citizens. It will be more encouraging still if we see more schools follow their lead. Possession of the habits of a good friend, neighbor, and citizen are not guaranteed, and K-12 schools have a role to play in helping students develop them.

Ian Lindquist is a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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