The term “agonism” has its origins in Ancient Greece, where it referred to the competitive spirit that was thought to be necessary for success in athletics and other endeavors. In recent years, the concept of agonism has been applied to a variety of different fields, including psychology and education.
There is still some debate over exactly what constitutes an “agonistic” approach to learning, but there are a few key ideas that are generally agreed upon. First, agonistic learning emphasizes the importance of competition and struggle in the learning process. Second, it views learning as a kind of battle between different ideas or perspective, with the goal being to find the truth or correct answer. Finally, agonistic learning theory holds that this process is ultimately beneficial for both the individual learner and society as a whole.
Some argue that the traditional educational system is already quite agonistic, with its emphasis on grades, standardized tests, and other forms of competition. Others argue that the current system could benefit from a more explicit focus on agonism, by incorporating more opportunities for debate and discussion into the curriculum. Either way, it is clear that the concept of agonism has important implications for our understanding of learning and education.
A terrible thing to waste a mind is, and because of agonism in academics, youngsters today may not be getting the full potential out of their intellect simply due to how they/we are taught. Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University professor, claims in her paper “Agonism in the Academy: Surviving the Argument Culture” (2000) that collaboration rather than debate is a more effective approach to educate our students.
In the “Agonism in the Academy” article, Tannen (2000) begins with introducing her ideas on agonism and how it has taken over pretty much every sector in our society. Agonism defined by Tannen (2000), is when someone strives to be number one, or the best at something by any means necessary; it also includes trying to put other people down so that they feel inferior. It’s an eye for an eye type of thinking which unfortunately has made its way into institutions of learning.
Tannen (2000) further argues that agonism should not have a place in education because students are meant to learn from each other as well as their educators. When people are debating, they are not really looking to find a resolution or common ground, they are trying to prove that their opinion is the right one. This type of thinking can prevent students from being able to think critically about a topic and see both sides of an argument. It also takes away from the learning environment because it can make people feel uncomfortable or like they are not good enough.
On the other hand, discussion allows for different points of view to be brought to the table and for there to be a back and forth exchange of ideas. It is more collaborative than agonistic and it is ultimately more beneficial for everyone involved. In a discussion, people are more likely to be open-minded and willing to listen to others because they are not focused on winning an argument. They are also more likely to be able to see both sides of an issue and to find common ground.
Tannen (2000) argues that agonism has no place in the academy because it is not conducive to learning. discussion is a much better way for people to share ideas and to learn from each other. It is more collaborative and less competitive, and it ultimately results in a better learning experience for everyone involved.
Tannen discusses how academic culture has been harmed by agonistic learning through her focus on logic, which she uses ethos and pathos to back up her logical argument that competitive learning is not as beneficial as free discussion.
Psychology has shown us that learning is a process that happens best when we feel safe to explore new ideas and take risks. Unfortunately, the culture of academia often encourages an agonistic approach to learning, where students and scholars are more focused on winning arguments than on finding truth. This competitive environment can stifle creativity and collaboration, and ultimately lead to poorer quality research.
We need to move away from an agonistic model of learning in order to create a more open, supportive environment where all voices can be heard and everyone can reach their full potential. Only then will we be able to produce the best possible research and make real progress in our understanding of the world around us.
Tannen offers the example of a book club session in which academic material and learning were torn down by critics and agonistic individuals, explaining how to avoid injuring people. During the book club meeting, Tannen claims, there were disputes about the information among various groups.
The people who agreed with the book’s message banded together and those who didn’t, criticized it. There were two extreme groups, those who thought the book was brilliant and those who thought it was terrible. Tannen argues that this is a problem in the academy, where learning is turned into a competition instead of a collaborative effort.
Tannen goes on to say that agonism is detrimental to learning because it pits people against each other instead of working together. Agonism also leads to people being defensive and not open to new ideas. When learning is turned into a competition, it becomes about winning and losing instead of understanding. This kind of environment can be discouraging and lead to people giving up on trying to learn altogether.
“The situation I observed at the book group meeting was a case of agonistic cultural language, as defined by Walter Ong.” (215) Tannen explains that she was disappointed after the discussion because nothing new had been revealed about the book or its subjects.
” (215). Tannen is hinting that the problem with these types of discussion is that they are too focused on winning the argument, and not learning. In other words, people are more concerned with being right, than being informed.
Tannen goes on to say that “ agonism…is a way of relating to others that is pervasive in our society but is perhaps most visible in academic settings.” (216). She gives the example of how in many classrooms, there is an atmosphere of competition instead of collaboration. Students are often trying to one-up each other instead of working together to understand the material. This can be frustrating for students who are trying to learn, but feel like they have to fight for attention.
Tannen argues that agonism is “not necessarily a bad thing.” (216). It can be a way to get people engaged and motivated. However, it can also be “tiring and discouraging.” (216). When it is relentless, it can lead to people feeling like they are not good enough or that they will never be able to meet the standards set by their peers.
In order to combat the negative effects of agonism, Tannen suggests that we need to “reframe how we think about competition.” (217). Instead of seeing it as a zero-sum game, where there is only one winner and everyone else is a loser, we can see it as a way to “stretch and grow.” (217). Competition can be a way to push ourselves to be better, but only if we view it in the right way.