The Power of Disagreement Revisited

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Recently, many people have created preset rules for social gatherings in order to try and minimize conflict–with the number one rule being “No talking about politics.” Family members and friends dance around the major issues facing our communities and try to focus conversation on topics that will not create conflict.  

“Wow, Uncle Al, this apple pie is delicious! What type of apples did you use? Did you make the crust from scratch?”

“Mom, you really outdid yourself with this chicken soup. It tastes like you added something different…really? I never would have guessed you used the pearled onions”

“How was your trip to Charleston? Did you have nice weather? I cannot believe the weather we had here while you were away.”

While these niceties show gratitude and are polite, they are not exactly “soup questions.”

Last year I wrote a blog post, The Power of Disagreement, and I could not help but reflect on these ideas over the past few weeks, especially after reading a pair of articles in the NY Times, The Dying Art of Disagreement and How to Find Common GroundWhy do we need to avoid conversations where we may disagree? What does it mean to live in a free society that is absent of debate?

The concept of debate goes back to Ancient Greece, the first democratic society. The Greeks believed that engaging in conversations over controversial topics is what pushed society forward and led to a greater understanding of the world. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle — these philosophers’ debates became some of our great literary works. 

Fast forward to the founding of the United States of America. The Founding Fathers did not agree on how to shape the country and build a government. As a matter of fact, they got it wrong the first time around. Without the ability to come together, argue their ideas, and find compromise it is unlikely that the American experiment would have been as successful. We got a glimpse of this in 1861 when our country broke out in Civil War. 

So why are we talking about pie and weather instead of the great problems of our time? At Brimmer, we do not want our students shying away from the hard conversations. In history class, students are asked to take positions, research the opposition’s side, and develop meticulously crafted arguments that often leads to disagreement. Eleventh and twelfth grade English classes use the Harkness Method to create student lead class discussions where they argue for and against each other’s points of view. Science students discuss the validity of data and its meaning.

Our students are the future leaders of their communities and our country and they are learning the skills necessary to disagree. It has become far too common on college campuses for students to boo or walk out on speakers they disagree with. We do not want our students to tune out those with different ideas. Instead, we want them to use the skills they learn in class so they can enter into productive debate — actively listening to the people around them, striving to understand another person’s ideas, and being able to speak passionately and respectfully when they find themselves in disagreement. If they can resist the temptation to talk about pie, then our future will be brighter.

The Power of Disagreement

Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to attend an event where Governor Charlie Baker was speaking. It was a fantastic event, and it is always such a pleasure to hear the Governor speak about the state of the Commonwealth and our society. During the discussion, I could not help but be encouraged by a story he shared from his childhood that has shaped his view on debate, disagreement, and decision-making.

Governor Baker shared that his mother was a registered Democrat, and his father was a registered Republican. In his house, while growing up, his parents often engaged in conversations and disagreements on a number of issues. As he reflected on growing up in a household that embraced debate, I want to share two important ideas that resonated with me and are relevant for our students.

First, Governor Baker talked about the idea of surrounding oneself with the best minds regardless of their party affiliation and encouraging debate. He empathized the difference between intellectual disagreement and malicious disagreement. It was a critical distinction. The purpose of debate is not to tear another person down, but to deepen one’s own understanding, as well as the other person’s.

The point he shared was about how his parents and family friends were able to enter into strong arguments over politics, but it never impacted their relationships. By not entering a discussion with malicious intent, they knew that the arguments was about ideas.

Governor Baker’s words ring true if we are to live up to our mission of “develop[ing] life long learners who are informed, engaged, and ethical citizens and leaders in our diverse world.” We must continue our work with students so that they can engage in authentic discussions about what they are learning, the issues in our own community, and current events.

In recent conversations with ninth grade students, it was clear that they want to be a part of intellectual debate. They want to engage in conversations about our world and to dive deeper into the issues. They also shared that they believed the Brimmer community was one that was welcoming of all diversity–race, ethnicity, religious, identity, and intellectual.

We need to continue to teach students to engage in these discussions in order to learn and not to create conflict. In this way, like Governor Baker’s parents and family friends, respectful debate can lead to stronger personal relationships and deeper understanding, instead of creating wedges between people.