Dr. Robert S. Harvey still has trouble processing how the situation escalated so quickly.
Most students are sent to the principal’s office for bending the rules or disrupting the learning environment. But Dr. Harvey, then a high school student, was dismissed from class for engaging his teacher in a scholarly debate.
Dr. Harvey, who is Black, found himself in a tense exchange with his white history teacher because he suggested that the Civil War was primarily fought over the issue of slavery. His teacher disagreed.
“After three to four minutes of an incessant, exhaustive back and forth, [the teacher] utilized his positional power to ‘win this little debate,’” recalls Dr. Harvey, who is now the chief academic officer for the East Harlem Scholars Academy.
Spurred by that memory and the ongoing social upheaval he sees across the country, Dr. Harvey is eager to foster a better environment for students to engage in constructive arguments. It’s why he plans to implement a curriculum developed by the Better Arguments Project for the upcoming school year.
By providing his middle school teachers with the tools to facilitate a series of engaging, thought-provoking discussions that introduce students to the principles of a Better Argument, he hopes to help students deepen connections with their learning communities, consider different perspectives, and discover better ways to engage with one another.
Principles of a Better Argument
- Take winning off the table
- Pay attention to context
- Prioritize relationships and listen passionately
- Embrace vulnerability
- Make room to transform
The Better Arguments Project—a civic initiative founded by Allstate, The Aspen Institute, Facing History and Ourselves, and the Bezos Family Foundation to help bridge divides—was built on the belief that arguments are fundamental to healthy civic life. To effectively address divisions in our society, it proposes we have better arguments, not fewer.
The project characterizes better arguments as emotionally intelligent, rooted in history, and honest about power imbalances. Using five principles for engagement—taking winning off the table, prioritizing relationships, paying attention to context, embracing vulnerability, and making room to transform—the project provides a framework for people to engage with each other on divisive issues.
When Dr. Harvey learned about the initiative and its five principles, he better understood the dynamics that were at play during that long-ago argument with his high school history teacher.
“The outcome of that argument would have turned out much differently had the five principles been around back then,” says Dr. Harvey. “I see now that the teacher was only interested in winning that ‘debate,’ using the power of his position to get me to believe what he believed, rather than in discussing our two viewpoints in a less confrontational way after class or during lunch.”
Dr. Harvey says he plans to use the Better Arguments resources with his school’s existing curriculum to help students engage in constructive conversations on the topics that are most important to them.
“The East Harlem Scholars Academy is a place-based organization, strategically and intentionally committed to going deep into the issues in the East Harlem community,” he says. “The Better Arguments Project offers an educationally sound methodology to help us talk about them in an innovative way.
“As the nation endures a racial reckoning, a historic economic downturn, and a health crisis of epic proportions, Better Arguments offers students a set of accessible and approachable principles that will help them make sense of and participate in the arguments these crises have produced.”
For those outside of the classroom, Better Arguments offers resources tailored to facilitate conversations in the areas of business, community, home, faith, and public office.
One such conversation happened last year in Denver when Anythink Libraries brought together a diverse group of community leaders and residents to explore tensions around the city’s “tech boom.” Participants engaged in arguments discussing the positive and negative implications of the city’s technology-driven economic growth. The group explored issues of inequity, employment opportunity, gentrification, and housing displacement.
“Better Arguments intrigued us because we see this need in our community—the need for people to connect over topics that are important to them,” says Stacie Ledden, director of innovations and brand strategy for Anythink. “People are hungry for civilized, face-to-face conversation and are tired of hiding behind keyboards in a way that is detrimental to their overall health and well-being.”
Ledden acknowledged that, in her past experience, it was often easier to avoid conversations because of the fear of getting into arguments—but that’s changed since she learned about Better Arguments.
“I have a stronger desire to listen and understand someone’s perspective and where that perspective comes from more than ever before,” she says. “The five principles have stayed with me since the dialogue, and I try to go back to those frequently when I’m witnessing an argument or treading close to one myself. Listening passionately and not going into a situation with a winning mentality is so critical.”
Ledden says that the Better Arguments experience has renewed her sense of hope.
“With tools like those from Better Arguments … I am hopeful that we will be better able to communicate with each other in purposeful, productive ways,” she says. “The experience also has inspired our organization to want to host more gatherings like this and create opportunities for people to come together, be vulnerable, and have candid conversations with each other.”
The sense of urgency to have these conversations is palatable, says Erica Grossman, a creative lead at Anythink who also attended the Denver event.
“In an increasingly polarized world, thoughtful arguments are vital to bridging divides,” she says. “It’s critical that we engage with each other and our communities around difficult topics in order to strengthen our democracy and confront challenges.”
To learn more about the Better Arguments Project and to access its free resources, including discussion guides and training opportunities, visit betterarguments.org.