Department of Communication

Potential Risk of Teaching Argument and Debate

Despite the pedagogical benefits of deliberation, there are critics of deliberation who note that the process can sometimes have drawbacks. Here is a list of common objections, and solutions that can be implemented.

Lack of skill: Many students lack the ability to communicate complicated opinions to an audience effectively. Towards a solution: Deliberation is, contrary to popular belief, a teachable and learnable skill. Students can acquire better deliberation skills through conceptual work, theoretical readings, and practical experience.

Too antagonistic: Deliberation often descends into argument that is perceived as too aggressive or argumentative for many students to feel comfortable. This antagonism could privilege verbally aggressive students and silence students uncomfortable with conflict. Towards a solution: Resist stereotypes of deliberation as aggressive, in-the-trenches combat. Focus on the necessity of deliberation for group decision-making. Utilize non-combative forms of deliberation, like role-play or open discussion that emphasizes less-aggressive deliberation procedures.

Fosters indoctrination: Deliberation has the potential to create the conditions where “groupthink” dominates. If students follow the “opinion leader” in the group, then authentic deliberation fails to occur. Towards a solution: Emphasize the value of diverse experiences and opinions. Students must be encouraged to seek out difference in order to reach the best judgment.

Failure to have equal representation: Deliberation can be a productive exercise, but almost inevitably leaves some perspective out. This loss of perspective short-circuits the possibility of drawing from diverse experiences, and might lend disproportionate credibility to dominant perspectives. Towards a solution: Encouraging a meta-reflective moment and asking which voices are absent, and what they might say if they were present, might rectify the failure of representation.

Inability to reach judgment: Deliberation exercises are directed at reaching judgment, or at least towards making future judgments more probable. The inability to reach judgments because of radically differing opinions and viewpoints can indicate to students the inefficiency of deliberation practices, and make them less confident in working within deliberative frameworks. Towards a solution: Disagreement is a natural part of the world as well. Even if students are unable to agree on a satisfactory resolution to the topic, the benefits from engaging in the process contributes valuable experience. Emphasizing that deliberation is an ongoing process, and that the end of the class does not necessarily indicate the end of deliberation, encourages students to think of deliberation as a life-long pursuit. At least narrowing the possible decisions the class agrees are not preferable provides an advancement of the deliberative process.

Substitutes for action: Deliberation could provide the illusion of democratic action and empowerment by remaining in the classroom. Students participating in deliberation might feel that their “micro” level interactions supplant a need to intervene in the “macro” level. In other words, deliberative exercises in the classroom might fulfill the need for personal control such that broader political participation is deemed unnecessary. Towards a solution: Engage outside audiences. Students can conduct primary research interviews, present their research findings to non-classroom audiences, or stage public presentations.

More Information