Promoting a culture of argumentation

Kay Añonuevo teaches German at the Ateneo High School. She is also an instructor at the UP Department of Psychology. This piece was published in the August 9, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Despite knowing that Psycholinguistics, what I teach, does not exactly inspire passion from students, I was astonished by the blank faces that greeted me when I referred to the more radical versions of the Whorf hypothesis. The 40-page reading on Linguistic Determinism, a chapter from Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, is admittedly not Eat, Pray, Love. But I had assigned it more than a week ago, so I couldn’t understand why their expressions were similar to when I was teaching them German (in German) last week as an exercise in foreign-language acquisition.

My colleagues and I usually bemoan how students these days do not “read” the texts we so carefully choose as fodder for reflection and springboards for discussion. As much as I am baffled (How can anyone not be impressed by Pinker’s examples and arguments?) and disappointed by the lack of thoughtful answers to whether the experiment presented in class supports the claim that “language has a profound effect on how its speakers reason and see the world,” I think that maybe, by expecting my students to be able to summarize and extract the thesis statement of a chapter just like that, I have inadvertently done a disservice to learning and the culture of ideas and arguments.

Argument literacy used to be taught in Philo 10 and Comm (or Kom) 2, but the revitalized general education program (RGEP) of the University of the Philippines (UP) emphasizes student choice, and there are no core courses anymore. Though RGEP has encouraged the creation of innovative courses, my personal take is that because of the uneven quality of Philippine high schools, these core courses are important. Where else will they learn, as Gerald Graff, professor of English and education said, “that summarizing and making arguments is the name of the game in academia?” Inasmuch as iskos and iskas will acquire invaluable information and many important skills and values from Gender and Sexuality or Biotechnology for a Better World, “training in these qualities will be incomplete if students are unable to translate them into persuasive public discourse” (Graff, 2003).

If the goal is to develop the capacity for “independent, critical, and creative thinking,” this should be explicitly taught rather than expected to emerge after taking a mix of courses. Not just because these are essential life skills, and we want to have Filipino citizens with such abilities, but in the short-term, they are necessary for getting the most out of university, out of these new innovative and relevant courses.

As someone whose main interest used to be self-regulation, I believe self-regulated learning (SRL) should be integrated into higher- education curriculum. Rather than merely complaining how our students are not able to manage time properly, how they have perfected cramming, how they do not read texts, or if they do, they don’t read them how they should be read, or how their writing skills are getting worse and worse, I think the university can actually fashion an intervention, a “learning-to-learn” class, to help students. Similarly, UP can chuck its sink-or-swim policy when it comes to making students familiar with effective argumentation and supporting them as they learn the rudiments of this powerful tool. As a Psychology senior ten years ago (at that time UP students still had core courses), I remember thinking how Philosophy for Children (P4C) should be a general-education (GE) course. In almost every session, we would read a text introducing a certain philosophical issue (for example, rules and freedom) and then we would have a discussion trying to answer the questions that we thought of as we read the text. What was cool about that class was my classmates and I had a discussion community, and examining our contributions to the discussion was imperative.

In Clueless in Academe, Graff says that “throwing inexperienced students headlong into intellectual debates” doesn’t work. I think that by requiring all freshmen to go through well-crafted English and Filipino composition and basic research courses, as well as one or two P4C-like subjects, we will not only imbue in them the basics of argumentation, they will also realize for themselves that argumentation need not be dry and joyless.

The movie An Education comes to mind as I think of how education can seem “hard and boring” compared to the real world. In one of my favorite scenes, Jenny, who is thinking of dropping out of high school and no longer pursuing her and her family’s Oxford dream, tells the headmistress of her school “it’s not enough to educate us anymore…you’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.”

The trick in getting my students to appreciate and engage in the debate on how much influence language has on thinking is to go back to the basics. Tell them how once upon a time the scientist von Humboldt thought that language was the very fabric of thought and how this led him to deduce that the speakers of Indo-European languages derive their superiority from their most perfect languages. Or how the idea of primitive languages maintaining intellectual poverty led some to strive for the eradication of native American languages.

Beyond the narrative of how “supposedly scientific” assumptions have had dire consequences, perhaps we need to ask “So what?” together and think about how this debate matters to them, or possibly even ask if it actually does. I have already asked them to connect linguistic determinism to their own experiences by relating Pinker’s assertions to their use of Filipino, English, and even Taglish, in hopes of making the conceptual personal. With this emphasis on what they have to say (and not just what Pinker has to say), as well as photocopies of Graff’s How to Write an Argument, I am almost confident that the cluelessness will eventually be replaced by an engagement that is not baffling at all.

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