Each year I ask my students to write papers that have a clear thesis statement, a further clarification of the thesis in terms of definitions, a set of arguments for the thesis based on recognizable authorities, and a recognition of and answer to counter arguments. And finally a conclusion that reiterates the thesis and expresses its practical implications. What could be easier?
But while some students find it easy, others find it quite difficult. Because I am asking them to speak a language they’ve never spoken, or haven’t spoken for years. It would be like asking me to compose an academic essay in French, which I studied for several years but haven’t used in decades.
The reality is that academic discourse takes place in a relatively closed cultural world. It has its own recognized authorities, and closely associated with those its assumed values. It is a discourse that has its own structures of argument and ways of reaching conclusions. Whatever the language, it has its own special terminology. Indeed, it comes close to meeting an anthropological definition of being a religion in itself.
A system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long – lasting moods and motivations in humans by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
Which is why academics often fail to speak convincingly in debates outside the academic world. Those debates take place among people who have different values, recognize different authorities, and use entirely different rhetorical devises to construct what they find to be compelling arguments. For all practical purposes they have a different religion than that of academics.
Those of us who actually want to make a difference in important political debates will need to be somewhat less arrogant about the normative status of our authorities, values, and rhetorical devices. We’ll have to learn that people who don’t agree with us are not bad, stupid, or ignorant. They are tired of listening to us (rhetorically speaking regardless of volume) shout louder and louder in the same incomprehensible language. As we are tired of them, by the way. They are tired of our ceaseless proselytizing that doesn’t respect the integrity of their experience and worldview.
Most of all we’ll have to realize that neither our United Methodist church, nor our American society, possess what we can assume to be a common culture, or religion (i.e. our religion and culture) And this isn’t a matter of just ethnic origins or different formal religions.
Which means that we will need to take the first steps in engaging others in actual dialogue, a dialogue that doesn’t seek to convince or persuade, but (at this nascent stage) simply tries to discover and acknowledge a common language, then perhaps shared values, possibly agreed authorities, and finally mutually recognized rhetorical devices. That done (and we are decades away in the United Methodist church and American politics) we might actually effectively reach agreement on how to address our common problems as human beings.