Based in Sydney, Australia, Foundry is a blog by Rebecca Thao. Her posts explore modern architecture through photos and quotes by influential architects, engineers, and artists.

Debating in a Moral Vacuum

Last week I had the chance to spend a couple of days serving as a judge for a tournament at a high school debate camp. It was great fun--the kids spoke well, showed brilliance in many of their arguments, and generally managed to have a good time while taking seriously the questions put to them by the debate prompts. Before debates, they scrawled meme-like drawings of Immanuel Kant and Thomas Hobbes on white boards, appending various captions riffing on their systems of thought. During rounds they drew on those systems of thought to make their cases, arguing rapidly (though without much rhetorical polish) through the rigidly timed constructions, cross-examinations, and rebuttals. At the end of each round, I offered a few comments to each debater about how he or she could strengthen her case from a philosophical perspective. Overall the kids were intelligent, polite, attentive, and eager to learn. All of them seem poised to flourish in college and beyond, and all of them, from what I can see, have been miserably, unforgivably failed by the educational system.


This failure is (or should be) all the more alarming because it represents a near collapse of the educational project in a segment of the system that, ostensibly, is working. These were not kids from failing schools or low income areas. They were largely middle and upper-middle class kids who have expected all their lives to go to college and then to graduate or professional school so that they can join the same socioeconomic class as adults. And they still stand a much-better-than-even chance of achieving that goal. The current system has given them that, at least. But I want to observe two ways that our education is failing students, suggest a couple of solutions we can strive for in the church, and then make a general observation about the nature of education and its proper ends.

1)  We haven’t taught them how to listen or speak well; only how to listen and speak fast.

Being a newcomer to judging debate, (though I have always been a contrarian, I was never a member of a formal debate team) I was dimly surprised to find that the classical art of rhetoric seems neither to be taught to students nor employed in their speeches. None sought to find the most apt turn of phrase for their argument, or to delight the ear or the memory with rhyming or alliteration or any other rhetorical device. Rather, students spoke quickly, at times even unintelligibly, to wade through masses of observations, contentions, subpoints, and citations during their allotted case construction times. They indiscriminately flung a haze of evidences at their opponent, hoping that he or she would drop some one or two of them, or have only seven sources to their eight. Then seizing upon the discrepancy they would point out in their closing argument that they must be the better debater defending the more correct position, because the weight of evidence tilted slightly in their favor.

Leaving aside for the moment the philosophical vacuity of the (now commonplace) thought that the side with more facts that have not yet been debunked is always in the right in questions of value, consider the fact that the way these students are taught to listen and speak is, in miniature, the whole sum and substance of our public dialogue at the moment. We listen to our opponents only to counterpoint them, and we speak/text/tweet quickly and thoughtlessly, flinging facts into the void of all the other speaking mouths and tweeting thumbs. We do not engage arguments on their merits, because frequently they have no merits, only assertions. And some of our very best students are learning that this is the highest, most truth-seekingly earnest form of debate. How can we repair this in how we raise children in the church? I would suggest we model three things for them: listening charitably, thinking clearly, and speaking slowly. Listening with charity means listening to our neighbor with whom we argue with Christian love. We must not listen to him only to reply or debunk his position; rather we must listen to understand him and show appropriate dignity to him as a bearer of the imago Dei. This careful, charitable listening must lead then to careful, clear thinking. A Christian ethic demands that we think not in terms of which side in a debate has the heaviest freight of newly-minted facts, but rather that we do the much harder labor of rightly dividing facts from values, considering the ground of those values, and holding them up to a robustly biblical view of reality. Finally, only after this may we speak a reply to our neighbor, slowly and resolutely; choosing fitting words designed to convince and persuade rather than cut, crush, and overwhelm. Teaching and modeling this for our students will go a long way toward repairing this defect in their education.

2) We haven’t taught them how to wisely distinguish right from wrong; only how to crusade for what seems right at the moment.

One of the more striking happenings in the tournament was the repetition, in various places, of a particular red herring brought on by our cultural moment. Several debaters posited that the United States government should not provide legal rights to animals, for the baffling reason that structural racism exists and police violence often occurs unjustly against persons of color. This line of argument potentially holds great promise, but it needs to be sustained by the meat and potatoes of a substantive, careful account of human dignity as superior to the dignity of beasts and birds and creeping things. It cannot support itself on the thin gruel of consequentialist ethics, of maximizing benefit and reducing suffering. Students felt very strongly about issues of racial justice, police brutality, and reconciliation--and rightly so. They spoke passionately and even, at times, angrily. Students who had to answer the argument were crestfallen--they felt they could not answer it without appearing to harbor racist sympathies.  But they were unable to give an account, either during their debates or in our conversations afterward, of why these issues matter, and why we should accord human rights a higher priority in our chain of moral oughts than animal rights, though they all agreed that we should.  The way that they have been educated precludes their asking questions that might lead to deeper answers, and so their evaluative judgments are left all too often as brute assertions of fact.

Discipling and educating children in the church means teaching them that Christian ethics are rooted in Christian ontology. We must deliberately and thoughtfully reject the consequentialist ethical reasoning that pervades our dialogue, as antithetical to genuine accounts of justice and truth. What is right is rooted in the eternal character of the Triune God; not in a progressive account of justice as securing the least amount of suffering for the most amount of beings. Students who are taught to carefully reflect on this reality and apply it to ethical questions will be able to sustain trying dialogues about justice in a world where justice is often hard to come by. We do great service as salt and light when we teach and disciple our children toward this end.

This, finally, points to the proper ends of education. The kids I worked with at the debate tournament faithfully repeated the line they’ve been taught: that they need to study well, so they can get into a good college, so they can get a good middle class job, and so perpetuate their lifestyle. But this end is hollow, and it is a grave disservice to students to teach them that the whole aim of all education is this. We must present a distinctly Christian vision of education, that orients students toward the true, the good, and the beautiful and gives them the tools to think carefully, speak truly, and listen with charity. Only this can bear the weight that education must bear. 

The Weight of Absence

Cautiously Stepping Out on the Divine Dance Floor