Teaching the Values of Collective Wisdom and Democracy
The Justice Talking format requires students to present multiple sides of a contentious public issue within an historical context, an engagement that is fundamental to citizenship in a democracy. In the Sophistic spirit of dissoi logoi the format promotes both civil argument and a civic education. It helps clarify differences between expert sources, advocacy sources, and experiential case studies without discounting any single type of testimony or the emotions and artistry intrinsic to persuasive arguments. The format calls upon students to:
- identify central issues;
- listen to the voices of opposing views;
- restate the ideas of others;
- scrutinize their own ideas, making clear connections between their ideas and those of others;
- search beneath the issues to locate the assumptions and consequences of specific claims;
- make concessions in the interests of finding common ground; and
- treat colleagues’ work as significant—to the point of defending it as their own. (Benton,2003; Wallen, 2003; Olbrys, 2006).
As students consider the multitude of perspectives, opinions, and individual voices, they also learn something about the value of and the possibility for collective wisdom and the gradual formation of public opinion. This contrasts with traditional notions of the research paper that tend to privilege facts and statistics and to dismiss opinion as if it were idiosyncratic or individual. A common question students ask—“Can I put my opinion in the paper?”—reveals the individualistic and objectivist bias in students’ minds. The collaborative and performative experience of the Justice Talking format can help to loosen the close tie between individuals and their personal opinions and to bind those opinions more publicly to a community’s ideology and its characteristic ways of interpreting raw facts and data. Students can begin to explore the link between their opinions and their membership in communities, between their opinions and the characteristic terms used to express those opinions. Not only may students feel less personally threatened by controversial challenges to their opinions, but they may also be more willing to explore what counts as evidence and knowledge within different disciplinary areas and to accept multiple ways of knowing about a given issue.
Finally, the project reinforces an understanding of the purposes of discussion, articulated by Brookfield and Preskill (2005), as a means for informed understanding, enhanced awareness, appreciation, and taking action. Experiencing discussion this way helps students understand that “[d]iscussion and democracy are inseparable.“