Learning how to disagree better

The previous Vice-chancellor of Sydney University, Michael Spence, states of his time at the university: 'We need in western civilisation to learn how to disagree better.’

Paul encourages lively discussion in his Philosophy and Theology Course with Year 9 students

I recently heard the current Vice-chancellor, Mark Scott, quote Michael Spence when he described how he handled the gathering of students that shouted down Malcolm Turnbull’s address at the university recently.

Both leaders were concerned to support freedom of speech.

You have probably read recently of the activist campaign against feminist and lesbian academic, Kathleen Stock (OBE), when she was invited to take part in a debate by the famous Oxford University Debating Society. There was a campaign to cancel the society. It was led by activists because Stock has argued that a person’s physical sex should trump their self-identification in some matters of law and social practice.

Well-known academics of all persuasions (determinists, theologians, arts academics, scientists) defended her right to speak, whether or not they agreed with her point of view.

If we look back through history we will find a seemingly endless number of places where different groups have held completely different views. We need to learn how to disagree well. Schools have a critical role in teaching this.

We need to learn how to disagree well. Schools have a critical role in teaching this.

Dr Paul Burgis, Principal PLC Sydney

I spoke last week at Senior School assembly about the verse in Proverbs 18:17 - ‘In a lawsuit the first seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.’

I didn’t delve into Malcolm Turnbull or the university protests in Sydney or the UK but I did show students a wide range of book titles that offer completely different perspectives on key issues in politics, economics, the notion of progress, religious belief and social practice.

I invite our students to read widely, to read something that might give a different view to that which they currently hold. This is not to say that the ‘new’ view is better than their current view. Sometimes we must doubt, and then think again and doubt our doubts.

The objective? I want to encourage our students to work out what THEY think and then be comfortable with someone holding a completely different view to them.

I also want to encourage them to listen, to be open minded and respectful when having a conversation with someone who holds a different view to theirs. To remember that they are discussing the idea or concept, not the person. And, in the end, we can always 'agree to disagree' without making it personal.

Let's all learn how to disagree better.

Dr Paul Burgis

PhD (UNSW), MEd, BEd, Dip Tch (Eng/His-sec), Dip Div/Miss

Dr Paul Burgis is the current Principal of the Presbyterian Ladies College, Sydney. Paul is married and has three daughters and lives in Drummoyne, Sydney. In his leisure time he enjoys reading history, theology, philosophy and poetry, supporting the Cronulla Sharks and wild bird photography. He worships with his family at Drummoyne Presbyterian Church.