Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Boys Debating Nicely

Note: This post originally appeared as a guest post over on Philosophy Etcetera.

I note that there has been an upsurge of interest in all-male schools in New Zealand, and that part of the reason for this is, reportedly, the "feminising" of coededucational schools (no references, sorry: it was some time ago). According to one principal, coed schools are becoming increasingly unsuitable for boys because they do not cater for the "masculine" needs of boys; in particular, coed schools tend to emphasise "group discussion and deliberation," rather than more combative, aggressive activities of the kind that are attractive to young males.

Reports like this bring out a problem in school education thathas been suggested to me by a small amount of anecdotal evidence and a slightly larger (but still fairly small) amount of personal experience: namely, that the tendency among school-age males towards combative activities, and away from cooperative activities, looks to be at odds with some of the intellectual values that school is supposed to inculcate in students. Let us suppose for a moment that school-age males do favour combative over cooperative pursuits, including those in the domain of critical thinking. What kind of problem does this present, and how can it be mitigated or overcome? Is the problem exaggerated?

This question is interesting to me partly because intellectual values in question here are of a kind that is especially pertinent to Philosophy. One of the skills that study in Philosophy is meant to develop is the ability to argue nicely: to take other people’s views seriously, and to respond to them with charity and sensitivity; to be open to the possibility that one might be wrong, and to revise one’s beliefs when one discovers that one is wrong; to avoid simplistic dichotomies between right and wrong*; to regard the pursuit of truth as an inherently valuable activity, and not to sacrifice this end for the sake of other ends, such as that of beating a long-time rival, winning personal glory, or avoiding the embarrassment of public error. This may not be a comprehensive list, or an entirely accurate one, but you get the idea. And it is natural to think that the intellectual and social qualities in this list cannot be introduced unless the combative spirit of young lads is somehow softened or removed. What I want to argue here is that that the situation is quite so bad as one might think, given this brief analysis of the problem. Male combativeness is a real problem here, but it might also be part of the solution; and insofar as it is a problem, it is only partially a problem.

*I do not mean to say anything daringly post-modern here. I mean to say that many claims are too vague or complex to be straightforwardly true or false; and that the best way to arrive at a truth about such statements is to replace it with a set of more precise claims, whose truth-values may differ from eachother.

The first point to note is that arguing nicely is not the only end of communal discussion. We also want students to argue rigorously, and one way to promote this value is to encourage students to subject any beliefs or arguments to severe scrutiny. To be sure, an overly combative person is likely to bestow such scrutiny primarily upon the ideas of his opponent; and to ignore or obfuscate the errors in his own thinking. But at least this is a start. One might also object that a combative person is more likely than a cooperative one to be dishonest in his scrutiny: to exaggerate the flaws of their opponents' thinking by the use of deviant dialectical tactics, of rhetorical rather than philosophical forms of persuasion. But it looks to me as if that sort of dishonesty is more a function of the intellectual powers of the disputant, rather than their attitude to the debate. If all members of a dispute are good at distinguishing rhetorical tactics from philosophical ones, then it looks as if this problem would at least partly disappear. For, if one is really intent upon proving one’s opponent wrong, and everyone involved is aware of what constitutes a genuine proof; then any deviant tactics are likely to be counter-productive to one’s competitive aims. So one way to cope with a combative spirit, and to turn it towards worthwhile intellectual ends, is to improve the rational powers of students.

Of course, such rational improvement is not sufficient to guarantee a good discussion. Social and other intellectual skills are also important. But again, it is a good start.

Another point is that arguing nicely is something that one can be combative about. There is no difficulty, at least in principle, of getting a few groups of people together to compete against eachother with regard to their facility for dignified, honest, cooperative deliberation. Of course, there is some difficulty, in principle, in having groups compete against eachother with regards to the sincerity of their commitment to arguing nicely. If a student sees the worth of arguing nicely only when such a practice allows him to compete viciously with rival groups, then clearly that student is missing something important. But a facility for arguing nicely is, I think, at least as valuable as a desire to argue nicely for its own sake; it is certainly a good start.

Perhaps it is a little unrealistic, though, to think that combatively-minded young lads will be as enthusiastic about competing over something like communal inquiry, as over things like romance or wrestling. But if this is the case, then the problem may lie not with the combative nature of young lads but with their disinterest in formal learning: they turn away from communal inquiry not because it does not allow them to indulge their combative instincts, but because it is an intellectual rather than a sporting activity. This is still a problem, of course, but it is a problem for another day.

And, insofar as communal inquiry does fail to satisfy the combative instincts of energetic young lads, something can still be salvaged (conceptually at least) by clarifying the notion of "combativeness." So far I have used the notion of "combative" in a fairly loose sense. Now I want to distinguish a few senses of the word, because I think there are some kinds of combativeness that are more compatible with cooperative debate than others. It is possible to distinguish conceptually between these senses of the word; distinguishing between them in practice (ie. by separating out one sort of combative behaviour from other sorts) is probably a lot more difficult, and eliminating the undesirable forms of combativeness is probably more difficult again. But the conceptual distinction is a good place to begin. So here are three kinds of combativeness:

Antagonism. To say that males are antagonistic is to say that they enjoy situations where two or more people are not only fiercely engaged in some competition or another, but that they compete spitefully or maliciously. They genuinely wish to cause eachother personal harm, either physically or emotionally or socially; and if they cannot do it themselves they like to watch it happen.

Competitiveness. The trait of relishing any chance to set one's own abilities against those of another. Fierce competition need not mean antagonistic competition: one can "play hard but play fair."

Ambition. I use "ambition" to refer to a desire to excel, though not necessarily at the expense of others. A merely ambitious person will wish only to perform as well as they possibly can, enjoying the strain and excitement of a difficult challenge. The challenge need not be posed by another person, and the strain need not be against another person.

Now, clearly antagonistic people are going to be ill-suited to good communal discussion. Not only are they likely to see the activity as an effort of self-aggrandisement, but that self-aggrandisement will take the form of petty personal abuse. They are unlikely even to engage their opponent in genuine debate, except about his height or facial features or the habits of his mother. Competitive people will be more successful, since they will compete over the matter under debate (ethics, politics, religion, the quality of some work of art, etc.) rather than irrelevant personal details. And people who are merely ambitious, without being competitive (in the sense just defined), will be even more successful in arguing nicely: they will not only seek truth themselves, but also encourage the efforts of others to seek the truth, since by doing the latter they enhance their own chances of achieving that end. So ambition is not only compatible with arguing nicely, but also conducive to it: far from being removed or softened, it should be encouraged.

Just how these three different traits are manifested in the average male school student (ie. in what kind of interrelation and in what proportion), is something for phsycologists and sociologists and teachers to work out, I think. It is empirical question (though of course not a merely empirical question). But it would be hard to answer the empirical question without having the conceptual distinction already in place.

I have written all of this without ever having tried to engage young males in good communal discussion, and I would be interested to hear from anyone who has had practical experience in this matter. Is it as difficult a task as it is sometimes made out to be? And are there any other traits within the broad notion of "combativeness" that I have missed out, or that are especially prevalent in school-age males? Comments appreciated, as usual.