Media quick fixes 2

April 27, 2007

A. C. Grayling is expressing what many must think but do not hear often enough ("'I'm right.' 'You're not'", Features, April 20).

Media reports are too often what he calls "eristic", merely an adversarial challenge for the purpose of arousing controversy and seldom for developing understanding, co-operation or civilised discussion.

We hear more debates in the House of Commons, where this is endemic, than in the select committees, where they attempt to reach worthwhile conclusions. The media orchestrators of discussion, such as Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys, model not the way to reconcile differences but the way to polarise and exaggerate them to provide a lively programme.

Grayling sees that coping with this "contrarianism" is extremely difficult because of the indifference to worthwhile conclusions. In debates so often the main worthwhile outcome seems to be defeating the other side, rather than respecting what it says and integrating it into a more balanced understanding. In higher education, debates and simulated games of conflict are sometimes used as a lively form of exploration, but they always end with serious debriefing designed to achieve a co-ordination of perspectives. Will more debriefing enable Grayling's better days to dawn? Can we realistically hope to encourage debriefing more widely? Probably not.

Another way of learning to integrate perspectives can be achieved through the experience of exchanging roles. In a forthcoming book, which draws together some of the findings of an undergraduate exchange programme between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cambridge University, the experience of spending a year in a different educational, cultural and personal environment gave students the time and opportunity to appreciate alternatives. They were not just being told about different perspectives; by living them, deeper changes were possible - a more lasting "new dawning"

that should be part of all students' experience, not only for the fortunate few or those who go to learn another language.

Roy Cox
Institute of Education, London

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