Playing Devil’s Advocate: Castro and Catcher in the Rye

I know it, but I can’t explain it.
Undergraduate M. H. Beals

If you can’t explain it, then you don’t really understand it.
Dr Paul Lucas
Dr Lucas was a wonderfully argumentative professor. He never, ever, let you get away with a half conceptualised argument or a unsupported assertion. I took two modules with him as an undergraduate, Our Western Roots and 19th-Century European Philosophy. With the possible exception of my viva voce, my arguments have never been as rigorously challenged by a listener as they were in those first- and second-year modules.

As the title of this blog suggests, I am an advocate of the Socratic teaching method. More than that, though, I simply enjoy playing Devil’s Advocate. Before each seminar, I make a quick note of two or three particularly controversial topics which might come up. As the discussion progression I start making notes of my students’ opinions (generally, not with any indication of who said what) and see if a general trend is emerging. When it becomes clear that my students have fallen into a uncritical rut, I leap into action.
I begin innocently.

‘So, what do you think of the counter-culture literature of the period? Did you enjoy Catcher in the Rye?’

A general murmur of approval emanates from the ranks.

‘Why did you like it?’

A slew of general comments slip past, often along the lines of 

‘I just get it, you know. I completely understand what Holden is trying to say.’

‘I see.’

The time is right.

‘But I mean, really, can you really sympathise with someone like Holden? Isn’t he just a whiny, nihilistic, upper-middle-class brat? I mean, what is he rebelling against? His life is so easy! What gives him the right to complain about anything?’

Stunned silence.  They honestly don’t know what to say. One gathers the courage to confront me.

‘No. I have to disagree. Even if he isn’t rebelling against something economic or political, it is still reflective of the general feeling of the time, that everyone was feeling the need to rebel against the boredom of the situation.’

I have done this for a variety of different topics, from everything from Columbus to the Earth Liberation Front. Sometimes it goes very well. I get the students to argue with me and present new and more specific evidence in their defence.
Sometimes they catch on, or hear from friends what stance I took. I simply switch sides.
Sometimes it goes horribly wrong. One student, when defending Kennedy’s aggressive reaction to Castro’s Revolution, looked absolutely crest-fallen when I argued against their point. They actually apologised to me after class for their opinion.

I managed to explain to them that I was playing Devil’s Advocate, and I just wanted to push them to define their argument a bit more concretely. In the end, they seemed happy with the situation, but I am sure many of those stunned silent simply felt their ideas were wrong, or had been rejected out of hand.

So, where should I draw the line? When does ‘playing Devil’s advocate’ go beyond stretching my students to actually breaking them?

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