What’s the University For?   /   Fall 2000   /    Articles

Two Cheers for the Argument Culture

Gerald Graff

IN MY RECENT EDUCATIONAL WRITINGS, I HAVE argued that instead of hiding out from their disagreements, schools and colleges should “teach the controversies” themselves. Since controversy, after all, is central to the intellectual and social life of democracy, students need to be trained in the ways of argumentation if they are to be fully participating citizens. Not surprisingly, however, this thesis has drawn flak from those who believe there is already too much contro- versy of an ugly and unedifying kind in both academia and the popular media today. The objection was put this way by an audience member at a recent public lecture:

How can you propose controversy to us as an educational cure when our society is already up to its ears in talk-show violence and political attack ads? And aren’t our debates in academe and beyond already overly suffused by a “Gotcha!” mentality that seeks to humiliate rather than to achieve consensus and cooperation?

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