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The fallow fields of academe and the lost art of disputatio

“Men who want not so much to clarify as to create a sensation,” wrote Josef Pieper, “are unfitted for debate—and they will avoid it.”

Image: Siora Photography | Unsplash.com)

Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded the MacArthur Genius Award in 2017 at the age of 41. She served as architect of the Pulitzer-Prize winning 1619 Project in 2019. Leading historians from the left and the right called into question the veracity of her revisionist history (and by implication her genius and the awards), by pointing out that some of her claims were plain wrong (there were slaves in America before the English colonies, for example). School districts in New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C. have, nevertheless, adopted the 1619 Project into history curricula. More recently, Hannah-Jones, according to Becket Adams of the The Washington Examiner, admitted the 1619 Project was not history but rather an “origin story.” She goes on to state:

The fight over the 1619 Project is not about history. It is about memory. I’ve always said that the 1619 Project is not a history. It is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative and, therefore, the national memory. The project has always been as much about the present as it is the past.

Why, then, is the 1619 Project being taught as history in public schools (unless it is being taught as fictive alternative history)? Like so many things these days, it doesn’t make sense. If history is merely contextual narrative (relative), then one story is as good as the next and all that matters is which story takes root in our cultural psyche. What better way to root a particular narrative than politically indoctrinating our youth through a conflation of narrative and fact in public schools?

The Woke movement relies on the instability inherent in relativity. This is a critical factor in why so much that passes as fact these days is actually fiction. If the truth is dependent on the zeitgeist of the moment, we are on a never-ending road of narrative competition that necessarily leads to nihilism. Put another way, if truth (and thus history) are relative, then there is no stable truth existing outside the human psyche. It’s all in our heads. There is no objective reality, and The Woke are would-be gods of Unreality.

In a 2005 homily, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned, “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” Pope Benedict XVI repeated this often during his pontificate. Politically charged raconteurs like Hannah-Jones seek to accelerate the move toward the dictatorship of relativism or, as Nietzsche put it in the preface to the Will to Power, “the triumph of nihilism.” She is not alone.

The 1619 Project seeks to displace objective reality by reconstituting national memory. With book titles like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ibram X Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist topping bestseller lists, we have entered a sphere where Logos, the foundation of Western civilization, is being supplanted by a primal craving for power. This is Hell. Kendi’s book is founded on a logical fallacy that most first-year philosophy students (even in a benighted age of education) would recognize at first glance, but goes unnoticed by the most educated members of The Woke. When Kendi claims a person is either a racist or an antiracist, he plunges head-first into a false dilemma. Opting to assess others based on character rather than racial identity, for one example, is a viable third option. DiAngelo employs an insidious circular reasoning that is now being hoisted on many governmental and corporate employees as required training. The fact that respected writers such as Matt Taibbi, who dubbed White Fragility as “the dumbest book ever written,” are simply ignored by advocates of The Woke. How did we get here? More importantly, how can we get back to making sense?

Josef Pieper, in his Guide to Thomas Aquinas (Ignatius, 1991), warned of the descent into the madness we are now witnessing. In fact, he nails the problem in two sentences:

But if anyone should ask how public discussion could have so hopelessly degenerated, perhaps the answer may be that only the paradigm has been lacking. Only the “model,” the commanding example of disputatio in the very place where it ought naturally to be at home: the university.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), master of the disputatio, saw that the method had become cumbersome and tedious and sought to “simplify, prune, and omit,” excessive language and arguments. Revamped to the current milieu, this boiled down disputatio might prove an important tool in unearthing that which has been covered over by the sophistry of relativists and dispel vapid public debates that fuel The Woke. And what is the goal of the Woke? An intentional break with reality catalyzed by cognitive dissonance.

For example, in White Fragility DiAngelo claims, “I can get through graduate school without ever discussing racism. I can graduate from law school without ever discussing racism. I can get through a teacher-education program without ever discussing racism.” Anyone who chooses to buy this must ignore the fact that the university campus is abuzz with discussions about racism. Social justice warriors who adopt arguments like DiAngleo’s necessarily come to rely on terms that defy substantive definition in order to perpetuate and protect a state of cognitive dissonance.

Take the phrase “systemic racism” as one more example. The fact is, teachers unions, schools of education, and the preponderance of governmental bureaucracies are dominated by liberals. If “systemic racism” is alive and well today, as they so vehemently claim, then they are responsible. The “systemic racism” argument comes home to devour those who brought it to life. Think of legion baby spiders cannibalizing their mother. A contemporary version of the Aquinas’ disputatio could avert such tragedy. It might also restore a degree of dignity to public discourse.

Here is a snapshot of Aquinas’ method to be adapted to current discourse: 1) an articulus that formulates the question at hand; 2) a charitable representation of opposing viewpoints; 3) a systematically developed answer to the question; 4) thoughtful replies to opposing arguments. Charity is key to authentic disputatio. Aquinas was known to craft opposing arguments superior to those of the opposition themselves. In order to accomplish such a feat, he had to thoroughly understand his interlocutors. Only by listening charitably to one another can we gain a greater understanding of a truth that always remains just beyond human grasp.

Today, opposing camps concerned with crucial social issues either ignore one another or launch ad hominem attacks as cover. We witness this on talk shows, so-called political debates, speeches, and on social media. People on both sides of the divide often act as if understanding the opposition would undermine their credibility. They do not seek a truth outside of themselves but rather the maintenance of a narrative that is relative in nature and threatened by reality. Because they cannot handle the truth, instead of seeking clarity, these pseudo-intellectuals obfuscate in order to perpetuate the cognitive dissonance required to preserve their story. This intentional break with reality eventually festers into the psychosis demonstrated by rioters who are unable to articulate any goal other than destruction.

The fact that Hannah-Jones, DiAngelo, Kendi, and of other leaders of The Woke hold advanced degrees is telling. Our universities have evicted the art of disputatio from once hallowed halls. The fruits of elegant simplicity and charity in understanding have withered on the vine in the very place they should thrive. In order to rectify our public discourse, it is necessary to call-out those interlopers who would sacrifice reality on the altar of narrative. Pieper tells us how: “Men who want not so much to clarify as to create a sensation are unfitted for debate—and they will avoid it.”

We must demand clarity of language and charity in understanding in public discourse. The public will then be in a position to make judgments on arguments rather than launch unfounded attacks on those who make them. After articulating the question of a disputatio posed by the public, each participant must demonstrate that they understand the argument at hand and opposing positions by repeating them, as charitably as possible, before refutation begins. If citizens and students demand this much from leaders and teachers, sanity can be restored. Until then, the fissure between reality and narrative will continue to widen until all things fall apart. The place to begin is by restoring the disputatio to its rightful position in the university. It is time to weed out the nonsense so Logos can take root once more in the fields of academe that have been fallow for far too long.


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About Jack Gist 3 Articles
Jack Gist is a humanities professor who has published in such journals as Crisis, The Imaginative Conservative, New Oxford Review, Academic Questions, and St. Austin Review.

14 Comments

  1. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
    — Matthew 6:23

    It is a spiritual problem no amount of adjustment of the techniques used in discourse will fix.

    • I agree that it is, in part, a spiritual problem, but it is also an epistemological problem. When relativism becomes the norm, individuals believe they create truth. This can be corrected through proper discourse. Start with the mind and the spirit, hopefully, will follow.

  2. Quite a number of years ago, the late and erudite Fr Edward T Oakes wrote an commentary in original sin framed on disputatio:
    https://www.firstthings.com/article/1998/11/001-original-sin-a-disputation

    Regarding the second step, here is a gem from Fr Oakes: “What makes this opening portion of each article so remarkable is Thomas’ generosity and fairness to his opponents. Aquinas is the ideal model here, for, as some commentators have noted, he at times seems to present a better argument for his opponents’ positions than they themselves managed to do”.

  3. Am I the only one that believes that disputations in higher education no longer exist? And, I mean entirely. As Professor Gist outlines, our educational institutions have devolved into narrative echo chambers- the same narratives formed by politicians and amplified by their media friends. Entire industries get rich riding these waves of narratives. It’s a sad state of affairs.

  4. We need to listen “Ascoulta” according to St. Benedict… And the lack of true dialogue discussion and debate is from both sides.. Today we idolize Donald Trump and America because we have fallen into a downward trend we have no real institutional church out there. In My Father’s Day the churches were open 24 hours Nuns were teaching at Catholic schools nuns were the nurses in hospitals. We no longer have an Institutional Church we look to America and the Constitution as our dogmatic decrees. America with all its greatness and hopefully potential was founded on Masonic principles, and until we come to realize that we are going to battle each other in America. In America everyone has a right error has rights, evil has rights, so we will constantly be divided as long as we’re going to accept the rights of everyone those are not God given rights.A homosexual does not have god-given rights, transgender does not have god-given rights they are Masonic constitutional rights… Also the violence that is going on is clearly an Angelic War, the racist issues are somewhat true. The white man did destroy the Indian Nation the white man continues to move and rape the land and pollute the Earth the white man does not want to live in the cities and in the neighborhoods in the communities. So the white man leaves New York City to move to the suburbs to get away from the filth, after that he moved from the suburbs to the rural regions of each state to destroy nature the trees the wells and everything else along with changing all the zoning laws to meet his white supremacist mentality. So the only way we’re going to have real dialogue is when we all learn how to live with one another in Harmony and simplicity and in truth the first truth we need to acknowledge is Donald Trump is not God and the Constitution is not the Bible and the Ten Commandments. The Constitution is a masonic document that gives everyone rights and then we need to honor those rights if we’re going to live to the Constitution as we have suffered through nearly 50 years of legal constitutional Masonic abortion everyone is guilty of this crime every
    Catholic is allowing it to happen if we were truly against abortion every Catholic would shut down until that law was changed but we’re not doing that all we’re doing is a lot of talk and talk is cheap. God bless I doubt that this will be printed. Because people can’t handle the truth especially about themselves

  5. “DiAngelo employs an insidious circular reasoning that is now being hoisted on many governmental and corporate employees as required training.”

    ‘Hoisted’? Surely ‘foisted’.

  6. Jack you are spot on.. Take your article and magnify 100 times in California. In the mid 70’s CA was in the top 5 of educational fact based freedom from K-16, now the bottom 5 states. We have so many people from 3rd World countries that do not even know how to read and write there on language, that the test scores are dropping almost yearly so our children will make it through their graduation years or even worse grade to grade so the Public Schools can get their $75 a day for each school per child.

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