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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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The Difference Between Insult and Argument

By Rick Hess — December 29, 2011 2 min read

It’s the end of the year, and I always get a bit reflective. As a blogger, I’ve long been intrigued by the “comments.” I’m frequently startled by the inchoate fury of so many postings. At an intellectual level I understand this is how many engage online--and it’s of a piece with talk radio and so much of cable news--but I find it a little bizarre, and not especially constructive. That said, it poses a bit of a teaching opportunity. On that count, my indefatigable assistant Becky King put on her rubber gloves to grab a few of this year’s more vociferous comments (boy, I hope my mom doesn’t read these).

In response to "The World Conspires to Make Expertise Unreliable," one reader opined, "Hess has found his niche--at the AEI, where he uses his questionable 'expertise' to undermine public education and seeks to privatize education for the benefit not of the kids but of profit-seeking entrepreneurs." With regards to "Customized Schooling," the same reader noted, "Hess and [co-editor Bruno] Manno are pro-voucher fanatics who will stoop to anything to wreck public schools and teacher unions. That Harvard would have anything to do with their antics is a crying shame."
In response to "I stand with Governor Walker," a reader commented, "You have sick sense of justice and fairness. To crap on lowly teachers instead where the real problems lie is low and self serving and ignorant. Get a real job." Another reader opined, "It is fairly transparent that Hess is more mouthpiece for a Neo-con 'think tank' than someone who actually has faced the real world of educating children or providing public services."
Responding to "Needed: A Schools Supe with Grit, not Glitz," a reader wrote, "When was the last time [Hess] taught a class in an 'urban' setting? He's circling the wagon as usual, promoting his next book and next wave of so-called 'reform'...These 'think' tank types irk me and really get under my skin. His dissertation work/topic...give me a break. What about your in the trenches, real-world experience Mr. Hess? Do you have any?"
Addressing "Cheating Scandal Newsflash: Teachers Aren't Plaster Saints," another reader wrote, "No, Rick, it's your own moral turpitude that's at issue here. Your 'plaster saints' are the reform industry sponsors who enable your career and line your pockets. You're pretending to assume they're misguided do-gooders, blindsided by their undue regard for public school teachers (!!), but you know they've been the liars and cheats all along."

When teaching, whether high schoolers, undergrads, or grad students, I usually at some point address how to most fruitfully engage in public debate. I often draw a distinction between insult and argument. The above are textbook examples of “insult.”

Insult is about venting. It’s not intended to convince or persuade; it’s not really even intended to engage with others. It presumes malicious intent on the part of those with whom one disagrees, and therefore that there’s no use in empathy or value in reasoned argument. Given the presumption of ill-intent, it favors ad hominem attack, impugned motives, and a presumption of malice. Ultimately, I find this to be an adolescent strategy, one which figures “the world is against me” and therefore eschews argument in favor of vitriolic, frustrated rage.

Argument, on the other hand, is an attempt to engage with other people as reasoning minds. It presumes that opponents and third parties are reasonable people who might be persuaded to change their minds. It is marked by a desire to understand what others think and a respect for nuance and opposing views. Even when opponents are unyielding, argument presumes that most observers are sufficiently fair-minded that they can be swayed and therefore favors reason and empathy over ad hominem attack. Argument is an adult strategy, one which welcomes hard-hitting discourse but presumes that most people are reasonably fair and that there’s no conspiracy silencing you.

Responding to "Want a 3.8 GPA? Major in Education," a reader wrote, "The idea that grade inflation is clearly shown by simply comparing student grades in different disciplines is somewhat foggy. Assuming that entrance requirements are similar for all students entering a particular college or university, the resulting GPA's could perhaps reflect harder study or perhaps a more understandable curriculum, not necessarily a less rigorous one. For the Engineering major, Engineering is fairly easy, while other majors will clearly state that they would not do well in Engineering... It is also not mentioned that many Education Departments require at least a 3.5 GPA."
In response to "And the Most Overhyped Edu-Entrepreneur of the Moment Is...?," another reader commented, "Hmm, overhype or part of the solution to education mess? One aspect of the Khan Academy solution, to borrow from Sal, is to 'flip the classroom.' The idea is that teacher and student time together be spent working on the problems (homework) rather than sending kids off to solve math or physics equations (or whatever) on their own...Just saying, this isn't a fad. It's one solution."
In response to "Why Education Innovations Tend to Crash and Burn," one reader wrote, "There's a simpler, alternative explanation why education 'innovations' crash and burn rather than 'scale.' We don't test the innovation, we test kids. And the tests we use have little to do with the 'innovation.' The 'promising models' are based on a 'theory of action'--on how the 'innovation' should work rather than on how the 'innovation' does work."

It’s a free country, and the venters are free to vent. But, if you’re inclined to spend the time and energy to read a blog and then comment on it, I’m just suggesting it’d be worth penning comments that actually point out the fallacies, educate the reader, or might change a few minds. And on that count, a few commenters may want to take a couple of lessons from some of the commenters who agree that I’m a dope--but who articulate their concerns in a constructive, and civil fashion.

Now, I know that some of my fellow Ed Week bloggers get comments that bathe them in cheerful praise. Ah, well. That’s not my lot. And I’m cool with that. But, as naïve as it may be, I do think it’d be a better world if, in the coming year, we all made it a point--on the blog and in the bigger world--to insult a little less and argue a little more.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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