Agree to Disagree? Let’s not

Recently a colleague offered in conversation that we should agree to disagree.  This led me to some observations about the role of agreement and disagreement in dialogue.  Some conversations involve a sort of perpetual agreement or mutual affirmation.  These are instances where we’re really just ‘shooting the breeze’, and there’s nothing much at issue between us.  We exchange the gnomes of accepted wisdom and nod.  Other exchanges are characterised pretty much by disagreement.  These are the situations where we talk at cross purposes, or talk past each other – we can’t even seem to get started on the way in which the matter at hand needs to be interrogated. 

In other dialogues there is more of an interplay of agreement and disagreement.  There is a sense in which we must agree to disagree – that is, we must agree in order to disagree.  We need to converge sufficiently in our understanding of some matter of importance for an interesting sort of disagreement to emerge, and we each need to have some interest or motivation to get to the truth of things.  On the other hand, we each need to disagree in order for the dialogue to continue.  If we no longer have an interestingly different perspective on the matter, the dialogue has run its course.  It might come to a satisfying conclusion, or we might drift on to other matters.

These kinds of dialogues are characterised by an openness of each interlocutor to the claims of the other.  Each risks being transformed by the other’s perspective on the truth of the matter.  In other words, each entertains the possibility of learning something from the other.  In these kinds of conversations, what would it mean to agree to disagree?  It is possible that we each might have exhausted our justifications for our differing perspectives. There are a couple of different ways of looking at this situation.  On one hand, it might mean a temporary cessation in dialogue. We pause, move on to other matters, but return to the dialogue once we have marshalled our arguments or had a chance to think more deeply about a particular question that has emerged.

Another way of looking at this is to think of our differing views as incommensurable perspectives.  In this case, agreeing to disagree marks the arrival at some sort of bedrock beyond which our dialogue cannot continue.  This has a finality: the conversation is over.  I agree with the hermeneutic thinker Hans-Georg Gadamer here.  There are no ‘undiscussable’ assumptions (1991: 40).  In Gadamer’s view, agreeing to disagree here ends the dialogue at precisely the point where what is really at issue is beginning to emerge.  The assumptions revealed at this point are often deeply held beliefs that are central to our identity.  Things become raw and exposed.  But this is precisely why dialogue must continue.  We do our interlocutor no favours by avoiding conversation because we have begun to talk about the very things that we care deeply about.  At this point, Gadamer argues, to suggest that we agree to disagree ‘excludes the other person in his positive function’ (ibid).  It is to assert that we are no longer prepared to be transformed by our interlocutor’s differing view on the truth, and that we are no longer therefore prepared to learn from their difference.  We should think very carefully about what might motivate a move to be the first interlocutor in a dialogue to offer, or even impose, the possibility of agreeing to disagree.

Gadamer, H-G (1991) Plato’s Dialectical Ethics, trans Wallace, R M, Yale University Press [original German publication 1931]

I originally posted this on Oxford University’s Practical Ethics blog

Is it cruel to make children read in silence?

Ahead of a talk to be given at the Institute of Education, Tom Bennett, behaviour guru and figurehead of the ResearchEd movement, invited questions via twitter that he hoped he could address in his seminar. One tweeter asked “Is it cruel to make [children] read/ write/ think in silence?” Bennett’s response on twitter was a one word, “no”, accompanied by this picture of guffawing muppets.

picThe subject of this particular post is not twitter etiquette or one particular exchange, but rather the implication that it is acceptable to consider this question about cruelty to be out and out laughable.     Bennett’s response is representative of a widespread return, particularly amongst the ‘edublogger’ community, to ‘traditional’ approaches to education, in response to a perceived failure of a ‘progressive’ project in which a child’s autonomy is supposedly prized above all else. The story goes that allowing children to discover by themselves, without the hindrance of attempts by those wiser than them to transmit valuable and hard-won knowledge, or to discover their moral code free from external constraint or imposition, has bred a growing number of illiterate and morally reprehensible youths unable to improve their own social situation. The implication is, I suppose (although no argument was offered on this occasion) that it is not cruel to impose things on children that they do not want or enjoy when we know what is best for them, and that, for the educational good of our children, we should laugh away suggestions that it might in any cases be wrong.

I imagine one might also argue that silence is imposed on children by teachers, who have some wisdom in these matters, that this happens in school, which is a certain kind of institution that requires certain kinds of behaviour, and that it is conducive to better learning.   We certainly wouldn’t claim that it is never in any circumstance cruel to require a child to sit in silence.

Before we proceed, I will note that I am going to make a comparison with a disciplinary situation, but I am not assuming that the practice of requiring children to sit in silence in school would be necessarily a disciplinary practice. Pedagogical reasons can be offered for it. That said, let’s imagine a father, who in response to some real or imagined slight, requires a young child to sit without speaking for several hours, and maybe continues to extend the time period whenever the child makes a noise – up to, say 48 hours? The father might say that he is the parent, who knows best, that this is his home and his rules, and that this discipline is for his child’s long term good.

This father is not simply mistaken somewhere in his reasoning. He is cruel. In other circumstances the line might not be so easily drawn, but the fact that the father’s stated reasons seem at least at first glance to be of a similar kind to those that might be offered by teachers shows us that claims linking silence in class to cruelty cannot simply be dismissed as ridiculous. We are moving here into realms of subtlety and nuance, to questions about appropriate context, and ultimately to the discernment of appropriate justifications for our actions.

Imagine that our hypothetical father has observed the practice of putting a child in ‘timeout’ to think for a while about her actions. This is commonly accompanied by a requirement to sit in silence. But this practice does not in all possible applications escape charges of cruelty. Consider, for example, if a parent finds that he put his child in timeout to reflect on a crime she didn’t actually commit. Most parents are going to feel pretty bad about that. It’s also fairly clear that a young child can only be expected to reflect in silence for a few minutes. Any longer than that is unlikely to have the desired effect, and risks the charge of cruelty. One would also imagine that this practice would simply be harmful for a child who was unlikely to understand what she had done wrong. Some other approach to moral formation would be necessary.

So there are perhaps three considerations relevant to determining whether a certain way of treating a child is cruel. The first might be proportionality. In the case of ‘timeout’, for example, five minutes is appropriate, say, and three hours is too long. Then there is the justification for using this approach over another. Do we have a good reason for doing this rather than some alternative? Finally, there must be some confidence that the approach we have taken will bring about the result we want. If we require children to sit in silence for too long, with no good reason, and without any confidence that this will bring about any substantial good for them, then we could rightly be accused of being cruel, because children tend to like to wriggle about and make noise.

I’m not arguing that teachers are always being cruel when they require children to sit in silence, but I am calling for teachers and influential educators to think about the subtleties of context and justification. It is certainly conceivable that teachers sometimes require children to work in silence for a disproportionate amount of time, without having really considered other ways of going about a similar learning task, and without any strong reason to believe that the silence is necessary or useful in bringing about a particular desired educational outcome. And it is far from cut and dried that there might not at least in a small number of these situations be some cruelty involved.