Last week, I wrote about the danger that computers are teaching our kids bad manners – because no matter how rudely you instruct them, they meekly do what you want. My suggestion was that voice-operated apps should be programmed to insist on being asked nicely.
But perhaps we should do the opposite and programme computers to argue with us. For instance, they could refuse to play a requested song on the grounds that the original is better than the cover version. The point is that reasoned disagreement is good for us – and that children need to be exposed to it.
Writing for the New York Times, Adam Grant makes such a brilliant case for the virtues of argument that I only wish I could disagree with it.
For instance, here’s his account of the creative partnership between Wilbur and Orville Wright:
“When the Wright brothers said they thought together, what they really meant is that they argued together… They squabbled for weeks, often shouting back and forth for hours. ‘After long arguments we often found ourselves in the ludicrous position of each having been converted to the other’s side,’ Orville reflected, ‘with no more agreement than when the discussion began.’ Only after thoroughly decimating each other’s arguments did it dawn on them that they were both wrong… ‘I don’t think they really got mad,’ their mechanic marveled, ‘but they sure got awfully hot.’”
Heated but not mad argument is the key. To be able to thrash out a solution to a shared problem is a vital skill – and one that children won’t learn in an atmosphere of unrelenting non-conflict:
“We want to give kids a stable home, so we stop siblings from quarreling and we have our own arguments behind closed doors. Yet if kids never get exposed to disagreement, we’ll end up limiting their creativity.
“We’ve known groupthink is a problem for a long time: We’ve watched ill-fated wars unfold after dissenting voices were silenced. But teaching kids to argue is more important than ever. Now we live in a time when voices that might offend are silenced on college campuses, when politics has become an untouchable topic in many circles, even more fraught than religion or race.”
Grant cites evidence that the most creative adults grew up in families where clashes of “value and attitudes and interests” were out in the open. He is careful to distinguish between constructive and destructive argument. Children obviously do not benefit from violent or abusive conflict – but nor do they benefit from the repression of honest disagreement:
“Most parents hide their conflicts: They want to present a united front, and they don’t want kids to worry. But when parents disagree with each other, kids learn to think for themselves.”
This carries on into adult life:
“The Wright brothers weren’t alone. The Beatles fought over instruments and lyrics and melodies. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony clashed over the right way to win the right to vote. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak argued incessantly while designing the first Apple computer. None of these people succeeded in spite of the drama — they flourished because of it. Brainstorming groups generate 16 percent more ideas when the members are encouraged to criticize one another.”
This is something I can personally attest to. In the two years I spent working in the British civil service, I never witnessed a single argument, constructive or otherwise, between career civil servants. Temporary appointees, in particular the notorious ‘SpAds’, did occasionally add some liveliness to the proceedings; but otherwise the culture was one of conformity. Not coincidentally, it was also the most creatively stifling environment I have ever worked in – despite the fact that some naturally creative people occasionally slip through the recruitment process (if you’re reading this chaps, you know who you are).
Schools and universities that seek to shield their students from controversial opinions and challenging ideas are doing real harm – and not only to free speech, but to the mental resilience and creative faculties of the young people in their care. Ultimately, we’ll all pay the price:
“If no one ever argues, you’re not likely to give up on old ways of doing things, let alone try new ones. Disagreement is the antidote to groupthink. We’re at our most imaginative when we’re out of sync. There’s no better time than childhood to learn how to dish it out — and to take it.”
Of course, you may think otherwise.