Each week in On the Other Hand, Ben Bartlett defies the common wisdom and identifies the other side of the story of cultural hot-topic issues.

It’s important to be nice and not argue all the time.  I’ve been hearing this my entire life, because I am hopelessly addicted to debate and it drives everyone around me crazy.  They tell me that I need to be more giving, that I need to back down, and that if I have a difference of opinion it’s better to say, “I guess we just have to agree to disagree,” which incidentally is one of my least favorite phrases in the English language.

There has been a lot in the news lately about various high-level arguments and negotiations; the NFL, the NBA, Egypt, and of course the debt limit.  Perhaps I’m merely growing grumpy, but it seems to me that people are less confident in the ability of leaders at various levels to bring negotiations to healthy, satisfying conclusions.  And I am shocked at the comfort level many people show with the idea of enacting the, “nuclear option,” or killing negotiations completely for the sake of making a point or allowing a bad result.

So my, “On the Other Hand,” for the week is this: I think it is bad that we don’t teach kids to argue more.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean kids should argue more often.  I mean we should spend more time teaching them how to argue effectively.

Good argument is a progression toward a workable solution.  It is built on fallacy-free thinking, buttressed by factual supporting evidence, and it is willing to compromise in areas of uncertainty.  Knowing how to argue well shows itself in your writing, in your ability to speak with calmness and restraint, and in your willingness to keep coming back to the table until a solution is reached.

In a world where the label, “debate,” is unhelpfully attached to long streams of anonymous profanity-laced comments on an internet message board, excellent debate skills are seemingly less appreciated than the ability to grandstand, to get your message into the media, and to hurt your opponent’s image in the wider culture.  This should not be.

So I encourage you, in the spirit of this article, teach your kids how to argue well!  We need fewer pompous egos and grand speeches about arguments that should be happening behind closed doors.  We need fewer clusters of leaders holding large numbers of people hostage because they’re angry.  Instead, what we really need are a few good arguments.


  1. While I agree wholeheartedly that arguing and critical thinking are important skills, and that many people today approach disagreements entirely the wrong way.

    I would add that the barrier to healthy debate is, in my mind, not just the inability to argue but also a lack of maturity. A lot of people simply can’t hear criticism of their ideas without being hurt and taking it personally (I am actually guilty of this myself many times). Also many people can express their own ideas very well but refuse to listen to their opponent and the “debate” turns into two people repeating themselves over and over.

    I guess I am agreeing with you, but also adding that teaching people to argue is more than just wordplay.

  2. I’m a big advocate of critical thinking and (more) critical discussion. Children who are taught well how to distill arguments, critique them, and prepare valid counter-arguments are going to be better prepared to sensibly interact with the world they grow into—a world they might otherwise find entirely too baffling.

    While I’m mostly on board with where you’re headed here, Ben, I’m hesitant to endorse your presentation entirely. I don’t find the use of debate terminology helpful. I think I know what you mean, but debate too clearly conjures the idea of formal debate, which has less to do with critically arriving at good conclusions and more to do with polemics and rhetoric.

    I’m always a little sad to find that kids I know are joining debate teams and are becoming interested in the formal circuit. Far from advocating clear thinking, debate focuses on victory—and the means required to be victorious. Debate is about using tricks and fallacies to snow opponents and judges. Debate isn’t concerned with truth so much as it is with defending ideas (no matter how worthy the idea is of defense).

    Better to instill intellectual humility and a demand for philosophical rigour and the tools to clarity of expression than to build in a child the reckless taste for victory in argument that debate tends to breed.

    Just wanted to add that clarification.

  3. Thanks for the good points, guys.

    Pete, I do agree with your point. I think you’re right that people take opposition personally, and that’s usually a huge mistake. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to argue as a “progression toward a workable solution.” When people have differences, they either need to move toward working them out or, if they reach an uncrossable impasse, gracefully exit the debate. Good education about how to argue well definitely ought to teach attitude and expectations, not just logical structures or rhetorical flourishes.

    Seth, I agree with your larger point. I’d probably push back a bit on the article’s meaning… I feel like the “progression” perspective I expressed is automatically in opposition to the idea of formal debate. But that’s a minor point.

    More importantly, I agree that formal debate is not a solution for these problems. While it might be a helpful preparation for, say, the courtroom, I have no confidence that it prepares kids for a lifetime of clear thinking and productive, irenic arguments.

    An “of the moment” post is a difficult place to lay out a larger structure for education in argument. But I liked some of the suggestions along the lines of my third link. I think it’s a good idea to spend time helping kids understand what is and isn’t good evidence in support of your point, and being willing to engage them in helpful arguments about various topics, things like that. Most important, I do NOT like it when parents insist on allowing their kids to respond to everything by saying, “that’s your opinion,” as if life is merely a bunch of opinions from which we pick and choose for no particular reason other than personal preference.

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