In Praise of the Clash of Cultures
An essay by Carlos Fraenkel, an associate professor of philosophy and Jewish studies at McGill University in Montreal, and the author of the forthcoming book, ‘Teaching Plato in Palestine.’ More on his work can be found at his Web site.
Do read the whole thing here. You won’t be sorry.
About 12 years ago, while studying Arabic in Cairo, I became friends with some Egyptian students. As we got to know each other better we also became concerned about each other’s way of life. They wanted to save my soul from eternally burning in hell by converting me to Islam. I wanted to save them from wasting their real life for an illusory afterlife by converting them to the secular worldview I grew up with.
I did not convert to Islam, nor did my Egyptian friends become atheists. But I learned an important lesson from our discussions: that I hadn’t properly thought through some of the most basic convictions underlying my way of life and worldview — from God’s existence to the human good. The challenge of my Egyptian friends forced me to think hard about these issues and defend views that had never been questioned in the European student milieu where I came from.
Of course diversity and disagreement on their own are not sufficient to bring about a culture of debate (otherwise the Middle East, the Balkans and many other places would be philosophical debating clubs!). Instead they often generate frustration and resentment or, worse, erupt in violence. That’s why we need a culture of debate. In my view, the last years of high school are the best place to lay the groundwork for such a culture.
The high school curriculum already includes subjects such as evolution, which are much more controversial than the skills required for engaging difference and disagreement in a constructive way. To provide the foundation for a culture of debate, the classes I have in mind would focus on two things: conveying techniques of debate — logical and semantic tools that allow students to clarify their views and to make and respond to arguments (a contemporary version of what Aristotelians called the Organon, the ‘toolkit’ of the philosopher). And cultivating virtues of debate — loving the truth more than winning an argument, and trying one’s best to understand the viewpoint of the opponent.
I had a class like that, with a teacher like this author, when I was in high school. I’m not the only one who still appreciates him. The Facebook page that one of his students made for him has over 500 members.
I realize I was one of the lucky ones. The best thing I can think of for the future of this country and this planet is that there be many more lucky ones in school today and in all times to come.
Learn how to think, not what to think. Then you can think for yourself.