Teaching students to think and debate helps society to flourish

A new essay competition gives undergraduates the chance to win £10,000 for arguing persuasively for and against the proposition: ‘transwomen are women’. The Edinlight Essay Prize, a project of the Edinburgh Enlightenment Network, aims to encourage students to develop valuable skills in critical thinking, clear reasoning and understanding competing viewpoints in a debate. In setting out the terms of the competition, Edinlight cites philosopher John Stuart Mill, who stated that: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” Students across the UK have until 14 January to enter, with a winner to be announced in April.

This initiative can’t come soon enough in a modern educational context that has been criticised as uncritical, unreasonable, and uncharitable – particularly in regard to the so-called “trans debate”. A litany of incidents in recent years involved gender critical staff and students facing unjust treatment: no-platforming, cancellation, and abuse. Such incidents have been widely publicised. Critics of trans ideology aren’t the only victims of on-campus intolerance, however.

In evidence to a Westminster committee in 2021, the Alliance of Pro-Life Students cited survey data showing that almost 7 in 10 of its members had witnessed “another student being discriminated against or harassed for holding pro-life views”. Almost 4 in 10 also said they were aware of an event being cancelled because it involved a pro-life person. This issue gets much less attention, but it is no less important, highlighting students’ inability to disagree agreeably.

Sadly, some students, and even educators, today seem to prefer life in an echo chamber to engaging with others who have different views. Or worse – they feel entitled to deny others’ right to speak altogether. This impulse should be anathema in education, which is supposed to involve learners being encouraged to explore, interrogate, and robustly but respectfully debate different ideas. The more censorious culture proliferates, the more harm it will do to education.

This trend will also have ill effects beyond university campuses. Students who enter professional life with censorious attitudes will import them into their new vocations. They will come to workplaces with a sense of entitlement – thinking their own beliefs and demands must always be accepted and applauded. This is no way to live life – in fact, it damages societal cohesion. Being a good neighbour requires tolerating others’ right to think, speak, and live in ways that are different.

Last month, a poll of MSPs highlighted a lack of understanding of religious belief in Scottish politics – and even intolerance towards it. Two anonymous respondents to a study by Holyrood magazine said religious faith should have no place in politics at all, with one saying it should “stay in the home”. It was alarming to see elected officials voicing these views. MSPs encouraging the silencing of those with different worldviews to themselves are sending a dangerous message to aspiring MSPs.

Encouraging students to think, reason, and show understanding of different positions in a debate will equip them with much-needed skills for their studies, and life beyond. To aid societal flourishing, we need many more initiatives like the one outlined above.

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