UBToday Online Alumni Magazine -Spring 1997
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American Pluralism

UGC 211: American Pluralism. Issues of Race, Class, Sex, Gender and Religion.

The podium is prepared, the speakers shuffle their debate cards and confer on strategy. "I think we'll settle down now," says Professor Barry Smith, calling the large lecture class to order. The proposition to be debated is clearly stated and without equivocation: "Membership in the Greek system should be compulsory for all undergraduates." It is the final installment in a series of debates Smith has organized for his spring 1997 Undergraduate College course UGC 211 American Pluralism: Issues of Race, Class, Sex, Gender and Religion.

In a course that emphasizes the forensic arts, Smith asks his students to research and present a well-argued position, often-and ideally-in opposition to their own feelings about a topic. He also organizes a series of debates between himself and guest speakers who can effectively present their views on such topics as Ebonics, affirmative action, women in the military, Internet censorship, inheritance laws, same-sex marriages and pornography.

"By means of these debates and special guest lectures, a variety of strands in the tapestry of American pluralism are subjected to rigorous examination," explains Smith, UB professor of philosophy, who is also a research scientist in the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis and a member of the university's Center for Cognitive Science. "I want students to see that there are many sides to an argument. In the course, I've found myself from week to week on different sides of debates on feminism and abortion, or on the question of whether women should be allowed to serve in frontline combat units."

In general, UB's American pluralism course focuses on the changing nature of American society and examines the diversity of cultural experiences in American life; however, each instructor is free to organize the course differently. Smith approaches his section of the course as a philosopher, using argument and logic to advance the understanding of his students.

A native of Bury, England, Smith makes his philosophical points in German as easily as he does in English. He received his M.A. in mathematics and philosophy from Oxford University, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Manchester. Before joining the UB faculty in 1993, he was professor of philosophy at the International Academy of Philosophy in Schaan, Liechtenstein.

Smith frankly encourages debate "performers" who gain confidence in their ability to defend-and understand-both their own views and those of the opposition. In so doing, Smith explains, "you learn the weaknesses in the other side's position-and in your own."

In this concluding student debate on fraternities, Brian Farber opens the affirmative case by striding forward in the Cooke Hall lecture room, working the audience and making his points effectively. He summarizes the rise of college fraternal organizations in the United States, placing more emphasis, however, on the role of fraternity membership in his own personal development. "I can now stand in front of a crowd as a result of my experience," he tells an increasingly attentive audience.

Other speakers detail the civic contributions of fraternities and the stereotyping of their activities as always party-related. Sean Webb admits that he drew some of his reasons to join a fraternity from the Internet, but goes on to describe membership as a chance to make lifetime associations. "When I first came to school I was scared, but when I came to rush I made a lot of friends."

But those arguing the negative come prepared, too. "Most people join fraternities for the wrong reasons," asserts Shannise Brown. Yes, laudable service functions do exist, but they must be considered in the context of the time and energy commitment of fraternity/sorority membership. "If it's so great, why do so many people drop [out] when they pledge?"

To Camille Joseph, the topic is "ludicrous," alluding to the word "compulsory" in the proposition. This comment brings a smile from Smith, who does not flinch from a contrary point, if it is well-reasoned and clearly delivered. In her remarks, she takes aim at the hazing incidents, many of which are detailed on the Internet. "Each time you pledge, you are putting your life on the line; hazing does occur."

In rebuttal, Brian Farber and others describe the relatively high grade point averages of fraternity and sorority members; membership advantages, such as designated driver policies, and parties that are only "infrequent." Hazing does happen, Farber acknowledges, "but that's life." At this point in the debate, some students arguing the negative begin to switch sides to express their own viewpoints. This is against formal debate rules, of course, but it's an extra-credit session with volunteer participants and Smith makes allowances.

"I enjoy teaching this course," says Smith. "People think of philosophy as some old-fashioned sort of discipline. In fact, it has applications in all sorts of extremely topical areas, including medical ethics, artificial intelligence and computer ethics.

"The issues that American pluralism confronts are absolutely vital issues-indeed, the most vital issues facing America today. People can argue rationally about the most painful and disturbing issues, such as race and abortion. I like to think that clarity, reason and care in thinking-which philosophy will cultivate-can contribute to solving these problems."

Ann Witcher, UBToday Editor.

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