–Undergraduate M. H. Beals
–Dr Paul Lucas
‘So, what do you think of the counter-culture literature of the period? Did you enjoy Catcher in the Rye?’
‘Why did you like it?’
‘I just get it, you know. I completely understand what Holden is trying to say.’
‘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?’
‘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?