A new film has just been released titled “Best of Enemies.” It recounts the iconic televised debates between arch conservative William F. Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal, which aired during the fateful 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions. For those of us old enough to remember these two intellectual characters in the context of the dramatic and often violent decade of the '60s, two points stand in high relief: one is the philosophical chasm between the two men, and the other, the level of intellectual discourse in which these two opponents engaged.
On a small film set, the two men discussed the political, social and economic issues of the time with exquisite research and articulation. Their debate was such a wonderful exercise of ideas and verbal jousting that whether their positions were personally repugnant was of little consequence. Their minds were so impressive that the enjoyment was in the listening. And, while this discourse is at the very heart of Socratic learning — learning through inquiry, exploring every point of view, and applying ideas to common men with common sense — enjoyment is not to be discounted as a key element in successful learning.
Over time, the changing nature of American culture and social media has seen the dissipation of intelligent public debate. A painful counterpoint to the intimate and heated debate of Vidal and Buckley is the spectacle of the current presidential primary campaigns. The candidates sometimes look more like members of a tribe on an episode of "Survivor"; perhaps candidates are building alliances to vote Donald Trump off the island. Of course, political campaigning is ironically the last place to look for intellectual discourse, but we should be looking for much more of it in our schools and in our personal lives.
The very best classes in school, at any age, are classes in which students can safely share their ideas, thoughts and interpretations. Classes that are discussion-based are essential in the development of reasoning and analytic thinking. Learning to cite facts and sources that support arguments and to follow clear logical steps in the articulation of ideas are the building blocks of good debate, but even more important is an open mind. This is the tricky component. We all have trouble listening to arguments that are contrary to our own, but learning at an early age to enjoy sharing ideas and positions promotes the discourse essential to Socratic learning. Once again, it is not enough to tolerate individual differences — educators must embrace and seek them out.
We live in an age of conformity, but also the age of taking sides: an insidious two-dimensional conformity. It is the age of “you're either with me or against me.” We now glorify the sound bite, the rhetorical position, the posturing, and most of all, the self-congratulation. If no political candidate could self-congratulate, but rather rationally defend, we would be better off. Discourse is not personal attack or self-promotion. It is the sharing of beliefs that are sound and moral and for the good of all men.
Teaching children to grow their minds, share their thoughts without self-promotion and enjoy and receive the ideas of others is the work we should be addressing. A state assessment, written by a corporate monopoly, will never capture that special gift or the selfless sharing of ideas that a teacher can find and foster in a student. Multiple choice answers and essays written but not shared, do not constitute discourse.
Gore Vidal and William Buckley may not have liked each other and certainly stooped to some name-calling, but we learned something listening to them, and that is what we are missing in our public and private lives. We can only learn by listening if someone is saying something worth listening to. Setting a higher standard for self-expression through discussion and intelligent debate in our classrooms is the best way to reinvigorate the intellectual life of our country.