Debating Hobbes

One of my favorite pedagogical tools in discussion section is the debate, if for no other reason than turning the class into some form of competition gets the students riled up. Students are to take the information they got in the lecture and what they picked up in the readings and form an argument in defense of an assigned topic. Their judges are their peers; in preparation for the debate I usually ask for three volunteers for the judges and then divide up the rest of the class. After I give the topic to the two debate teams and while the teams are coming up with their arguments, I tell the judges that they should come up with lists of arguments they might expect to hear from each side. After the presentations, I take the judges into the hall to get their ruling and inform them that they should explain the rationale behind their decisions.

The first debate I had the students do a few semesters ago was between big business and labor unions during the Gilded Age (History 1200 US History Since the 1865). Their readings for the week had consisted of a series of newspaper articles about the Pullman Strikes, some from pro-labor and some from pro-business sources. I instructed the students to try to ground their arguments in the articles at hand, but also to draw out arguments from the lecture. It might not have been politically correct, but a student (almost inevitably) from the side of big business to inform the laborers that they are replaceable because there are immigrants who will do the job cheaper gets one of the points across rather well.

Since that week I haven’t had as much success finding the right combination of lecture material, divisive issue, and sources that lend themselves to debating. This past week, while trying to explain the key point of, among other documents, Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes, I came across one.

I tinkered with this structure between each class, but the basic idea was this:

1. Instead of a panel of judges, there was one judge.
2. The groups had to debate three issues and had a chance to rebut in each debate. First: are all humans equal and are there benefits to inequality? Second: Hobbes says that life is nasty brutish and short, is he right? Third: you must pick one form of absolutism: patriarchy or matriarchy.
3. The judge makes a ruling after each debate and the side that lost gets to choose the side they defend next. Unlike other debates, the judge is under no obligation to explain his or her decision (I did ask that he or she came up with their list of arguments as part of class participation).
4. At the conclusion of the last debate, I turned the tables on the judge and asked the students if they thought that they had been judged fairly. When they usually said no, at least not on the issue of Patriarchy v. Matriarchy, I had the judge repeat to the students what I had said in the initial briefing, that the judge was not obliged to be fair.

I structured this entire process around the students debating these issues in the modern world deliberately, particularly the one about life being nasty, brutish, and short. With political philosophers it made more sense to explain the inherent ideas in a world that the students understood without needing to be lectured to fill in inevitable gaps in their knowledge. Yes, they should know some information, but with someone like Hobbes, I prefer to give the kernel of the idea and then have them come up with modern comparanda. Moreover, after I pointed out the meta-structure to the exercise I worked them through some of their own logic from both sides of the debate. The idea that life is pretty good for a lot of people, there are civil rights, more gender equality than ever before and drew out that, while it is possible to take issue with Hobbes’ claims on a number of levels, many of these issues of equality that are taken for granted are (or were) realized only through the involvement of a strong central government. I.e. Hobbes’ Leviathan (let alone Plato’s philosopher-king) does serve a role of protecting people.

Did they all come away from understanding Hobbes and patriarchy? No, probably not. But this was as close to one hundred percent participation as I have ever gotten in a class discussion and I expect that more students will remember this piece of Hobbesian thought than otherwise would have. That is good enough for me.