SHORT END OF THE STICK

Posted in Rants on March 21st, 2013 by Ed

One thing I never do in the classroom, despite it being fairly common in my field, is to have students debate political issues. That's not the point of political science. I'm far more interested in evaluating their level of knowledge than in letting them talk about what they think. They spend enough time talking about what they think. No one cares. Opinions are for the internet.

Yes, there is some value in the point-counterpoint format. But in the classroom it strikes me as more of a time-killing tactic than legitimate pedagogy. It's one step short of showing episodes of The West Wing because Prof has a hangover. I assign papers in which the students get to practice defending a viewpoint by constructing a logical argument based on evidence. In my opinion that's more useful.

The other reason I don't like debate-style exercises is that there are surprisingly few issues in politics have two relatively equally balanced sides to the argument. I mean, modern American politics is basically the Democrats mumbling something quasi-logical while the Republicans scream something that makes no sense whatsoever. What am I supposed to say, "OK class, today we're going to debate de-funding the National Science Foundation. This group will be the 'pro' side…." We'd get more accomplished if we played Candyland. Defending ridiculous viewpoints is going to teach them one of two things. They will learn to make nonsensical arguments unabashedly, or they will learn how to say a bunch of bullshit that sounds like a persuasive argument but isn't. The former is Sean Hannity, the latter, George Will.

Regular NY Times readers among you may know where I'm going with this, assuming you laughed as hard as I did when reading the recent story about young conservatives defending "Traditional" Marriage ("Young Opponents of Gay Marriage Undaunted by Battle Ahead") If these young people had not freely chosen to do this for a living – and presumably they're getting paid pretty well from the right-wing slush fund, especially for people with no particular skills – I might feel a little sorry for them. For people defending an ideology based on individual freedom and minimal government, constructing an anti-gay marriage argument involves willful ignorance or staggeringly complex mental gymnastics.

And the other side of the issue – the case for what proponents call traditional marriage – is simple, they say.

"In redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, what you’re doing is you’re excluding the norm of sexual complementarity," said Mr. Anderson, the Heritage Foundation fellow. "Once you exclude that norm, the three other norms – which are monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanency – become optional as well."

The result, proponents of traditional marriage say, would be further rises in divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births.

OK, sure, this argument makes no sense, being essentially an "It's bad for society!" argument from people who purport to be against what they call the Nanny State telling us what to do. But at the same time, wow, that is some epic bullshitting! Well done, Mr. Anderson. Made it sound all fancy 'n stuff!

I've never been one to read nobility into the idea of fighting a lost cause. To me it seems sad rather than some sort of victory of the human spirit against unfavorable odds. The reader gets a sense, based on their comments, that they see themselves as the protagonists in 300, fighting a lost cause in a way that will be remembered forever for its heroism, fidelity, and bravery. All I see is reasonably bright young people who could be doing something useful with their lives but instead have chosen to be the Washington Generals of the gay marriage debate.