Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto

11 03 2013

It’s a bit of a pickle.

How does one—how do I—create the conditions for a good debate on an issue which I think is not debatable?

This is a 100-level class on contemporary issues—and the students are high school seniors, to boot—so the constraints on debate are different, stricter, than what I’d allow in a 300-or-above-level class. I can trust my experienced students to stretch themselves around and take apart emotionally and ethically tricky issues without worrying that they’ll become undone; I can trust that they’ll use, rather than lose, their minds.

(Of course, not every student bothers to stretch herself, but lack of engagement is, in this context, less problematic than over- or mis-engagement.)

I want the intro-level students to learn about these issues and learn how to think for themselves, but it’s a damnable paradox that I have to structure the hell out of the classes (trans: do a lot of underground thinking on their behalf) in order to enable them to think. I don’t want to steer them; I have to steer them.

So, anyway, specifics: how do I have debate about sexual equality when I don’t think this is debatable?

I’d never have a debate about racial equality in this course, so why a consideration of sexual equality?One response is that sexual equality is a conventionally controversial issue in ways that racial equality is not. Very Serious People (to borrow an epithet from Krugman) are allowed to harrumph on the “natures” of men and women in ways that would be decidedly non-kosher if applied to ethnicity.

It’s a real, live issue, in other words.

Another response is that I did a shitty job in defining the issue as “sexual equality” as opposed to, I dunno, something else. Difference and equality, maybe? Changing sex roles? With either of those approaches, at least, I could find good, solid arguments from a number of different sides, that is, I could encourage debate in ways that don’t insult logic, evidence, or my own (and my students’) humanity.

I did manage to find a few pieces which approach the issue from the difference/equality perspective, so the students leading tomorrow’s class should be okay. Still, it could have been better.

This is what I get for thinking We should talk about this without figuring out ahead of time This is how we should talk about this.