Great issues are not to be found in this farm land community in the south central part of a state that is literally middle America: 25th in population and 24th in size. But an excitement about great issues is here, which may be better.At William Penn College, a liberal arts Quaker school of 650 students in its 106th year, an innovative curriculum is based on classroom debates of the great contemporary issues.
The other morning, in a classroom of about 25 students and with a painting of the peaceable kingdom on the wall, I dropped in on one of the intellectual square-offs. Two students were matched against another two on the question of whether the media manipulate public opinion.
As the passing-through representative of the media that are (pro) the able reflectors of public opinion or (con) crafty and systematic manipulators, I was at first interested to see who would "win" the debate.
But then, listening to the give-and-take of rebuttal and counter-rebuttal in which quotes from A. J. Liebling, I. F. Stone and other titans of the media exploded in the air like truth grenades, the purpose of this method of education slowly became obvious. First, it is meant to produce minds that can think, and, second, it conforms to Aristotle's thoughts about argument in Book One of "Rhetorica": "It is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs."
The leading Aristotelian on campus is Gus Tuberville, the college president. As one of 1,962 four-year college and university presidents (every one of them nervous about the Three Rs of higher education -- Rising costs, Rising competition for students) Tuberville had his fill of conventional teachers-talk-and-students-listen education. To him, that was oral chloroform.
"For learning to take place with any kind of efficiency," he says, "students must be motivated. To be motivated, they must become interested. And they become interested when they are actively working on projects which they can relate to their values and goals in life."
In 1979, Tuberville asked his teachers to shape their courses according to the great issues of the day.The risk was that this would be no more than bringing the Saturday night bull session into the daily classroom. But so far, little beery windiness has been heard.
The most impressive sign that the program is successful can be found in the campus library: In only one year, its use has tripled. Quakers are believers in friendly persuasion, one teacher told me, but the kids are discovering that well-researched and tightly reasoned persuasion has its uses, too. The same teacher said that with the students becoming more articulate, orally and written, he himself can no longer pull out last year's lecture notes. He refers approvingly to the remark of John Holt, "The biggest enemy to learning is the talking teacher."
Among the talking students in Penn's department of humanities, the debate topics for the current semester include: Resolved: that our environment determines everything about our behavior. Resolved: that restricted drugs should be made available to cancer victims. Resolved: that the problem of racial prejudice has largely been solved in America.
In the department of natural science, the debates include: Resolved: that mining control techniques should be lifted due to the energy shortage in the world. Resolved: that radiation is a factor in mutations.
In social sciences, it is resolved that the electoral college system should be abolished. It is resolved too that the food stamp program should be abolished and replaced by a cash grant program.
Penn students are asked to participate in at least one debate a semester, taking either the negative or affirmative. As word spreads nationally about the Great Issues program in tiny Oskaloosa -- it is the healthy kin of the Great Books program at Saint John's in Annapolis -- the experiment is likely to be debated itself. Resolved: William Penn College is on to something.
I'll take the affirmative.