Discourse

I agree with Jonathon Jacob in his Wall Street Journal column, As Education Declines, So Does Civic Culture.

Even after three or four years of undergraduate education, many students still cannot recognize reasoning when they encounter it. They have little grasp of the difference between merely “saying something” and constructing an explanation or formulating an argument.

Too often, learning to think [in school] is replaced by ideological scorekeeping, and the use of adjectives replaces the use of arguments.

Such blinkered thinking has serious implications for civic culture and political discourse. It discourages finding out what the facts are, revising one’s beliefs on the basis of those facts and being willing to engage with people who don’t already agree with you. What does that leave us with? A brittle, litmus-test version of politics. It is one thing if people move too quickly from argumentation to name-calling; it is another to be unable to tell the difference.

Ask these young people to describe the basic institutions of American government, or how a case makes its way to the Supreme Court or what “habeas corpus” means. The point isn’t to embarrass them, but to wake up the rest of us to how little students have been expected to know even about the political and legal order in which they live.

This reminds me of an assignment I had in grad school. For the first day of class, we were to prepare 5 minutes worth of remarks about a well-known court case that had just occurred. We were to state what we thought of the outcome and why.

It was a 25 point assignment. Most of my classmates didn’t prepare. They got up and spoke from the heart with little forethought. Our classmates applauded their efforts. I got up and stated my case. Of course, I disagreed with most everyone else. I received no applause and my classmates gave me lots of furrowed eyebrows.

I was shocked when I learned that I earned the highest points, 23 out of 25. The next closest person in the class earned 18.

Jonathon Jacobs explains why. Our prof was not grading us on our ability to speak with emotion. He graded us on our ability to build a case and support it.

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