In the course of my work in Albania, I have marked many thousands of academic essays. It has been a very instructive and illuminating experience as it gives a valuable snapshot of the thought processes of people in Albania. In fact, arguably, the way ideas are currently presented and argued in an essay is a microcosm of how debates and discussions are conducted outside the classroom.
The classic essay format sets out the way ideas are discussed: it looks at and analyses the various points of view that exist about a given topic irrespective of whether the writer shares these arguments. They are arguments in favour of a proposition and arguments against it. The writer may then come down in favour of one side or another, but only after he has considered the merits of all the ideas presented. Often, while considering opposing ideas, the writer is able to modify his or her original beliefs. In the end, ideally, the writer’s opinion is based on balanced arguments. In this case, the main objective of the essay is to enlighten, learn and add value.
In contrast to this, a bad essay, starts with the opinion. The rest of the essay is devoted to defending that opinion. If a counter argument is raised, it is merely in order for it to be rubbished to support the writer’s opinion. Sometimes a bogus ‘studies show’ or ‘statistics demonstrate’ appear without any reference or foundation, or even a weak counter-argument is presented to highlight the reasonableness of the author’s opinion. If the intelligent writer actually does think of an inconvenient fact which might disprove his argument, it is better to ignore it. Ultimately, the main objective of this type of essay is to prove that the author’s opinion is right.
The bad essay not only gives the student the wrong idea of how to present ideas, it also forms a blueprint for how society is run. Following this same pattern, the judge in the court has already formed his opinion (for whatever reason) before the trial begins. In this case, the process of cross examining and the adversarial system of defence and prosecution is merely window-dressing, ticking boxes or ‘going through the motions’. At worst, the judge dismisses evidence that is contrary to his own conclusion.
Witness, too, the many debates that appear on television between two or more participants. Ideally, a debate – on television or anywhere else – is where both parties listens to the others’ points of view and perhaps agrees with some points and disagrees with others and then possibly building on each other’s ideas. It is a quest to add value to a discussion, a dialectic from which new ideas spring, with the focus on listening to other people’s ideas and opinions. As they say, ‘God gave us two ears and one mouth, because he wanted us to listen twice as much as we talk.’
Unfortunately, in reality, listening doesn’t happen so often. In a discussion, each party starts with their opinion and they, like armies facing each other, are not only prepared to defend their argument to the death but also try to demolish the opponents’ arguments, often criticising the opponent himself to undermine his credibility. Occasionally, selective logic might win out but the strategy is more often about trying to dominate the field of battle by talking more than everybody else. Might, strength and a loud voice, not logical discussion, win the day.
With this philosophy of debate, it is hardly surprising that proper dialogue between the main political players is largely absent. If their objectives were to listen and discuss ideas in a constructive fashion, then something useful and interesting may arise from such debates.
If, on the other hand, the starting point is the ‘opinion’ and the objective is to defend this opinion then it is difficult to see how anything useful can be gained from such discussions. In fact, if a party does not have an opinion, a manifesto or a direction, then they can only fall back on rubbishing the opponents’ ideas or even they are unable to do this, to rubbish the opponents themselves. At its worst, therefore, a parliament can be merely a theatre that claims to be a proper chamber with proper procedures that allow proper constructive debates while being, in effect, dangerously close to a waste of time and the taxpayer’s money.
Some people argue that the philosophy of discussion is a legacy of Soviet-style education where there was only one ‘objective truth’. In the Soviet Union, Marxist-Leninist textbooks put forward arguments to ‘prove this truth’ through logical deduction. It meant that ‘inconvenient facts’ were either interpreted to suit the theory or ignored altogether and historical facts and people airbrushed out of history. However, this pattern of discourse that characterises a one party state has now long exceeded its shelf life, if it ever had one
What compounds this is the failure in some cultures to separate the argument from the person. While a northern European can easily say ‘I don’t like your argument’, without causing offence to the speaker, a southern European, who identifies themselves with the argument, may take the criticism of their opinion as a personal insult. When it comes to debates, therefore, the object of the discussion becomes lost as each part has now tied his reputation and his ego in ‘winning’ the ‘debate’ and not losing face. A challenge to a person’s stated opinion is a challenge to the person’s world view and the person himself.
This suggests, that in order to have a proper dialogue, there has to be two shifts in attitude and behaviour. Firstly, a citizen can be trained from an early age to separate their person and ego from the subject of discussion and just focus on objective evidence. It is then easier to admit their argument is wrong, false or flawed than to admit that oneself is wrong, false or flawed. In this way, the debate focuses on the arguments, not the person and a constructive dialogue is more likely to take place.
Secondly, and this is the key to discursive training in the early years of schooling, there is a need to teach the ability to look at different sides of an argument, including your opponents’ arguments, in order to create balance and credibility. Furthermore, to write a strong essay shows the ability of the writer to plan and organise their thoughts and construct them in a way to that is both logical and reasonable.
The good news is that students readily accept notion of a discursive essay which demands the planning of ideas, which supports an idea through carefully thought-out justifications and which presents opposite ideas, balancing up the merits of each. Not only this, they actually enjoy working within a proper disciplined process rather than one that resembles an unstructured diatribe. It might be a good idea to start teaching this in school and introduce this type of essay. Certainly, it might be a good idea to train teachers to teach this. Indeed, it is a perquisite to enable tomorrow’s citizens to have the tools to think and express themselves in a way that allows constructive dialogue.
Ultimately, when public debate begins to focus on the real exchange of ideas and on cooperation, rather than conflict, then there will be a seismic shift in how policy is formed and one day people can begin to respect the democratic process.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Tirana Times. www.tiranatimes.com
Alan Andon is the author of the ‘Xenophobe’s Guide® to Albania.’