Teaching young arguers to change the world

How are we teaching our youth to become active agents of change in the world? On the afternoon of Nov. 29, the Harrington Forum Lecture Series presented Dr. Cate Morrison’s talk, “Think! Inquire! Advocate! Teaching Young Arguers to Change the World.” Cate Morrison is a lecturer and director of debate in the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Communication Studies, giving her talk in Hardge Forum at the Multicultural Center to a room full of students and faculty of departments such as Film, Writing & Rhetoric and Philosophy.
Morrison began by introducing the history of the work she does teaching debate and argument as a point of liberation. Debate, according to Morrison, offers the tools to form students into active agents change in the world from kindergarten through high school and into college, but has usually only been offered to those who could already afford the opportunities. Alternatively, the RI Urban Debate League focuses on making debate accessible to all young students, and is one of 22 national chapters. Participation in the RI Urban Debate League has seen an increase in student graduation, achieving better test scores, and earn higher GPAs for every semester involved with debating. Morrison believes in what she called “youth voice,” which is the belief that young students have the “capacity for active advocacy now.” When we empower our youth with the ability to actively advocate and debate today, we help them become the world-changers of tomorrow.
A setback in this model for teaching debate in students K-12 is the Common Core State Standards in Rhode Island. While the Common Core identifies a place for argument across their curriculums, Morrison identifies several problems. “Common Core is designed to produce neo-liberal, passive subjects,” Morrison stated. She defines Neoliberalism as, “the complete integration of corporate & governmental states,” focusing government on economy and commodifying the relationships of the people in that system. What that means for students within the Common Core curriculum is that they are taught the logical structure of argument, such as premise and warranty, but are not taught the ethical or emotional appeals that are integral to effective debate. Without motive or emotion, the Common Core takes out the very reason for arguments, and presents assessment in a vacuum apart from the issues of the real world.
“Did you actually change the world?” Morrison hypothetically asked of the Common Core students. To illustrate how the Common Core approach differs from that of an organization like the RI Urban Debate League, Morrison presented the metaphor of a greenhouse versus a factory. In a greenhouse, things are encouraged to grow and developed independently, while in a factory things are operated on as subjects to be produced and replicated. For the Common Core, teaching of argument and debate assumes students as passive things to be produced, rather as agents of their own.
To counteract this, Morrison outlined the work she and organizations in Rhode Island are doing to be foster debate as a tool for making young people active agents in their schools, communities, and the world. Morrison’s curriculum involves producing inquiry and advocacy through organic argumentation, helping students ask questions such as, “Where am I coming from? What can I prove and how? Where am I going?” Working to make debate public, Morrison hopes to see more engagement in having student debates reach actual communities, such as students advocating for better lunches or engaging in a topic such as if Providence should be a Sanctuary City. “How do we teach argument?” Morrison asked. “We have students argue, through debate!”
The Harrington Forum is a part of a decade-long tradition in Communication Studies to bring topics of communication and media to the URI community. “To me, it’s one of the ways the promise of the Harrington School is realized,” Scott Kushner said, organizer of the forum and Assistant Professor of Communication studies. “It’s an institution within the school devoted to nothing but interdisciplinary change.” We can look forward to more of these forums in the coming semesters. This Spring, author and scholar Ilana Gershon will be talking in April, and two Harrington School scholars will speak on wayfinding in libraries as well as on feminism and entrepreneurialism. The forum continues to work to bring foremost interdisciplinary scholarship to the URI community.