I’ve been working for Gov. Romney’s campaign for the past two months.
For my “Foreign Policy of the 2012 Election” class, taught by Professor Peter Feaver, we were split into teams to simulate the foreign policy advisers for both campaigns. As a raging progressive, I found the prospect of defending Gov. Romney’s foreign policy positions terrifying.
Professor Feaver, after giving us our team assignments, noted in an email: “I realize that some of these assignments are ‘against type.’ If you want to switch, you have to find a willing swap partner on the other team.”
I frantically Facebook-messaged every single member of Team Obama, hoping to find a defector. None would trade with me, and so I had to make do with taking on the worldview of a candidate I thought lacked a foreign policy altogether.
However, our midterm this past Tuesday—a debate moderated by two surrogates of the campaigns—was the culmination of what has been one of the most intellectually refreshing classes I’ve taken at Duke. Having a debate as the midterm demanded that our team develop positions and practice them for an extended period of time. At the post-debate/midterm celebration, Professor Feaver asked how this amount of preparation compared to studying for a more traditional midterm. All of us agreed that we devoted more than the average amount of studying, because one can’t just cram for a debate (especially when these arguments aren’t as intuitive).
As I immersed myself in American Enterprise Institute studies, Foreign Policy Initiative position papers and Wall Street Journal op-eds, I began to reflect on the value to this ideological exercise. Perhaps I’m just a senile senior, but I’ve been hard-pressed to recall other occasions in academic settings in which I’ve been obliged to thoroughly defend and promote the arguments of an opposing school of thought.
I might as well be David Brooks-ian in making this self-righteous argument: Too often our academic settings prevent us from taking stances that we don’t personally agree with. And when we do, it often feels contrived.
How many times in the classroom are you told that you’ll be having a “debate” about a topic, only to be disappointed by the exercise? What about when a classmate prefaces a point by saying “I feel like” to formulate his or her opinion in a way that they think won’t provoke or offend? Have you ever, like me, found yourself in a seminar in which the professor is more interested in talking at you rather than encouraging you all to talk with each other? Even in seminars that aren’t hostile to interaction between students, I’ve seen classmates avoid looking at me in the face by turning to the professor in order to avoid being seen as a “Devil’s advocate” (God forbid).
Though it seems like eons ago that we experienced the Never Ending Series of Republican Primary Debates, studies have shown that Americans are influenced not just by these debates but also by the preceding and following evaluations in the media—Gov. Romney experienced a not-insignificant bump in the polls after his relatively more fiery performance last week. Debates do matter (as we were told by numerous columnists after-the-fact) in an increasingly opinionated world. Though I’ll be abandoning the Romney camp after our class midterm, I appreciate the perspective I’ve gained by viewing foreign policy through this alternate lens. It has made me much more critical of President Obama’s record in ways that I couldn’t have predicted, and more conscious of how campaigns can spin events in their candidate’s favor.
Moreover, I now see areas in which there are actually profound differences between the candidates, a departure from my pre-Romney days in which I thought that the distinctions were negligible. The best constructive criticism I may get this semester came from Professor Feaver: On our team op-ed on Syria, he wrote, “It reads more like a Colbert parody of Romney than what Romney would do”—which was true and indicative of how I have the tendency to not give credit to diverging but defensible positions.
To prepare for the world described above, I suggest making DI (debating inquiry) an additional mode of inquiry (or perhaps one that could replace the vague EI or the redundant CCI, given the CZ area of knowledge). In seriousness, extra T-requirements probably won’t solve much, but as Duke emphasizes interdisciplinary coursework and undergoes curricular review, I hope we could also consider the ways in which we integrate engagement and debate into the classroom. Either way, the DI would be one requirement I would be happy to fulfill (and perhaps trade, if anyone has an NS to spare?).
Samantha Lachman is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday. You can follow her on Twitter @SamLachman.