Fostering Debate and Conversation through History
by Michaela Berquist

In our 9th Grade US History course, the six papers assigned provide a valuable progression of writing skills designed to take students from the simpler retellings, summaries, and essays of grade school into the persuasive argument papers of high school. This progression allows students to move naturally through each step of the writing process, producing a quality paper which is valuable in its own right, while being prepared for the next element of a high school paper. Each writing assignment is well paired with content that is being studied, so that the student also acquires a sense of adapting the style of writing to the topic presented.

The first paper is a first person account of someone coming from Europe to one of the American colonies and settling into a new world and a new life. The first person is an appropriate, almost natural, method to chose for the topic of colonial experience, since each colonist would have a unique perspective upon the journey and its aftermath. In addition, this style of writing mirrors what is most natural to the young student, namely, conveying a recent direct experience of his own. However, in the process of researching, preparing, and writing the paper, the student must also come to realize that there are certain themes that must be considered. And so, while each colonist will have his own personal account allowing for a variety of papers produced, there is also a commonality of experience that will be present in every paper. The student must consider where in Europe the colonist is coming from and will realize that there is a correlation between the origin point in Europe and the final colony within America. The student must also consider the date of the voyage; when was the particular America colony founded and settled. These are elements that quickly anchor the student’s paper in historic reality. Next, the student must consider the voyage across the Atlantic and reflect not his own modern experience, but the far more frightening sixteenth or seventeenth century experience. But the student must limit himself, as well, so that there is still space left for the main thrust of the paper, namely the actual colony in America. At this point, the student must create a contrast for the reader, through the eyes of his fictional character, between the colonist’s previous European life and his new American life. Both of these are foreign to the student, but will become “his own” through the process of research and writing. Finally, a good student will bring the paper to a close, and, as is frequent in a first person account, give the reader a look forward, allowing the student to capture the hope the colonist has for this new life despite its hardships. The student will have produced something with a beginning, middle, and end, both chronologically, and also emotionally, having begun with the hardships that prompted the colonist to leave behind his old life to the hope he now has.

The second paper builds upon the newly refined first person account, by assigning a dialogue between two people holding opposing perspectives upon the Revolutionary War within America. The student must now assemble two characters, each of which has a perspective, much like the previous paper. But now the student must focus on the debate that inevitably follows when opposing opinions come into contact. Conversation is natural when men disagree, so, again, the topic is well suited to the content that is being studied. And again, the student is forced to consider that, despite the uniqueness of the two characters he may have chosen or crafted, there are certain themes which much be considered. There is latitude for the student in exactly which and how many themes he should incorporate into his particular debate. But a strong student will consider the justice or injustice of taxation, the lack of a colonial voice in the British parliament system or even within local colonial government, the wisdom and experience or the tyranny and lack of understanding of the British king and parliament, the impractical distance of Britain from the American colonies, the presence and function of British troops—are they here to provide protection from enemies outside or impose British rule upon those within, and finally the likelihood of colonial success or subjugation. These are all fascinating topics with direct bearing upon the American Revolution itself and topics where good men can clearly disagree. The student has the opportunity to explore and present the most persuasive reasons. Most students will be sympathetic to the patriot’s perspective and will find it easy to assemble that dialogue, but then the student will be stretched to consider fairly what the loyalist would have thought and spoken. This is a valuable skill in the art of debate, and a key step toward persuasive arguments. But the student must also consider the order in which these many distinct disagreements should be approached. In crafting the paper, the student must see that there is a natural order found in conversation, and that a persuasive speaker or debater will move from one point to what follows. An initial conversation about the justice of taxation should lead one to consider the question of proper representation, and that should lead to a question about the standing of the colonist as a citizen or subject of British rule. The student will have produced a fast-paced and entertaining dialogue that explores the preliminary skill of debate found within conversation.

The third paper moves the student from the simpler, more conversational first and second person account to a more formal third person narrative, as he considers the Westward expansion of the newly-formed United States. This is an often overlooked and yet remarkable event in which a tiny nation absorbed over 2 million immigrants and expanded to span a continent, while holding off the encroachments of both England from the North and Spain from the South. There are so many new and important facts to present that a narrative account suits this topic best. Again, the student must determine just which topics need to be considered in order to properly explain this event of rapid territorial expansion. This brings in an opportunity to consider cause and effect, which is best presented in a narrative account. The strong student will link together events like the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition, and then, in turn, see how the results of the expedition would arouse interest in migration to these newly-acquired lands. This rapid and remarkably successful expansion, fed in part by waves of immigrants and others seeking a better life, becomes the cause for additional expansive steps. So, the student can see and present the wars with Mexico over Texas and the American Southwest, as well as the near wars and subsequent treaties with England over the Oregon territory, as following upon American settlement within those territories. In addition, the student is invited to consider how such a dramatic expansion, which required much effort and suffering, would require not just the interest of the average pioneer settler, but also the support of the government through treaties, legislation, and even waves of media pressure through catch-phrases such as “manifest destiny”. Again, the student must bring the topic to a close, aware of the impact of this great expansion both on the future prosperity of this nation, but also upon the rising tensions between the North and South. While researching and writing this paper, the student will uncover some of the controversial elements that arise in this period of history, such as the mistreatment of the natives as they were unjustly moved off of their ancestral lands, or even the settlement by American pioneers in lands that the United States did not formally own. The narrative paper does not provide scope for resolving these, because, in general, these topics are better suited to a slightly older, more-formed student, who can attend to more of the nuances involved. However, the mere encounter with controversy whets the student’s appetite for the next phase in both history and writing.

The fourth paper on the Civil war is the culmination of the three previous papers, where the student will draw on all of the skills acquired by writing his first persuasive paper drawing on two clear opposing points of view. The student must write in the third person, presenting facts, as he did in the narrative account. But now he must present the facts of two opposing positions, much as he did in the dialogue. In addition, he must also fairly consider the strongest and most compelling reasons for both sides, in a multitude of ways, making each in turn his own, as he did in the first person account. That there is scope for controversy in the Civil War is undeniable; if anything, the challenge for the student is to narrow his paper to a particular controversial topic, so that he can fairly consider both sides and made a judgement in the time and space allotted to him! The student must also choose a topic where there is grounds for reasonable debate. One could write a paper on whether slavery is moral or immoral, even though it is clearly a settled question now, prompting an in-depth consideration of the reasons some people defended slavery, and seeing there is merit in considering and presenting a side that one knows to be wrong. But, a far more interesting topic might be to consider, given the attitudes of the time, whether slavery could have been outlawed peacefully over a few decades, or if it would have taken a drawn-out and bloody war as did occur. This second topic allows the student to draw upon the historical reality that many people within the southern states defended the morality of slavery, while exploring and writing about a topic (how slavery could have been ended) that the student might actually debate with his peers.

The fifth paper seems to be a departure from this progression, when the student stops to write a book report. But the student is re-engaging a fundamental skill of debate, which is the skill of being able to clearly articulate and pass a judgement upon another person’s position. Whether the student is considering the elements of natural law found in The Virginian or grace in overcoming adversity in Up from Slavery, the student must faithfully present the position of Owen Wister or Booker T. Washington, rather than his own. The student may draw a conclusion as to the justice of hanging Steve or shooting Trampas, but he must do so upon the events as presented by Wister. This requires that the student read carefully, think clearly, and write faithfully.  If the student can do this well with books that he enjoys and with authors whose opinions he shares, he is well on his way to doing this as faithfully regarding those to whom he is opposed.

The sixth paper provides the student with a second opportunity to consider two opposing points of view and draw a carefully-reasoned conclusion. However, the history and topics presented in the World Wars are even more complex and require a greater exercise of judgement than most of the Civil War topics. The student is challenged to consider and draw a conclusion regarding topics on which he may find that good men of his own acquaintance may disagree, such as the morality of dropping atomic bombs. This is valuable, because it encourages the student to choose a topic where he may find that he changes his conclusion over the course of his research, or where he may come to a conclusion in his paper that his friends or siblings may not share. This should not shake the student’s confidence in the truth or the fact that the truth can be known and expressed. But it can arouse in the student greater sympathy for the challenges of both argument and debate, and remind the student that he is not doggedly defending a particular position, but, rather, seeking the truth, even if that means recognizing in the process that he was wrong. Humility is an important skill in argument, because it is only in recognizing our errors and correcting them that we can come to objective truth.

By the end of this course, the student has had the chance to refine and then practice, in more than one topic, the art of articulating two opposing points of view grounded in factual evidence, and then drawing a reasoned and persuasive conclusion as to which position is right. This is an incredibly valuable art, fundamental to human reason and human dignity. In addition, this is an art that is being lost, if not outrightly condemned, in our modern world. Controversy is as old as man, but the idea that we should reach out to our opponents and engage them in debate with an eye to arriving at a conclusion to be held in common, namely the truth, presupposes that we respect the humanity of our opponent. To engage in this process, we must begin by meeting the opponent where he is at. This requires the art of careful and respectful listening. We must know the position that he holds, we must ask honest questions to elucidate his position, and we must strive to see the good in what his position holds.

When I teach the US History course, before the student writes the Civil War paper, I always ask my student to consider the topic of abortion. What would it entail to write a paper like the Civil War paper on abortion? There is no moral act that the student or I can consider more heinous than abortion, but, if I am to write that paper, or, better yet, speak with someone of that persuasion in the here-and-now, then I must be capable of hearing, considering, and presenting why they think abortion should be legal and protected. Is that an easy thing to do? Absolutely not. But I can never hope to move someone from their position to my position if I do not understand what they are saying and why they think it is right and true. It is only once I know their concerns that I can speak to those particular concerns, and it is with that background that I can explain to them how the truth better meets their concerns. The truth is never afraid of the opposing position, because it is truth that brings light to that position. Sometimes the mere process of articulating a position highlights its errors, allowing the particular error to be addressed—such as the selfishness of someone choosing abortion because the baby will derail education or a career. But sometimes the opponent’s position brings to light hard tragedies that require more thought in my response—such as the tragedies of rape or potentially fatal illness. The truth—in this case that the baby is an independent human person with a right to live—will still be fundamental to the answer. But I must present the life of that baby alongside the suffering or injustice the mother is enduring. And here is where the process of genuine debate fully recognizes the human dignity of both contestants. The truth is not a club with which I beat my opponent, but, rather, the truth is something I am sharing with my opponent, no matter how hard the heart. The whole point of engaging in debate is because I think that the person opposite me is capable of recognizing and embracing the truth when presented. I am inviting this person to a genuine change of heart and mind.

While so much of the world around us rejects debate and actively seeks to silence so many positions, we must hold on to what it means to present the truth and to make an argument. It is a fundamental recognition that the person who will hear or read these words is a human with a rational and immortal soul, capable of hearing and understanding the truth, embracing it with all his heart, and fundamentally altering his life in accord with that truth. This is what Christ enjoined upon the apostles, this is what every missionary seeking out foreign and often unfavorable lands strove to do, and this is what we are training our children to do when we teach them the art of making a persuasive argument.