Writing Centers and Collaborative Learning: Only Evolutionary?

In a recent post on The Stone, the New York Times’ blog for contemporary philosophical issues, Notre Dame professor Gary Cutting takes a look at a recent intellectual dust-up over the nature of human reason—a debate which I think falls squarely in the bounds of how we talk about writing center practice.

The uproar began when psychologists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier unveiled what they call an argumentative theory of reasoning.  Their theory goes something like this:  Oftentimes, without our even realizing it, our reasoning for just about anything is flawed.  This follows accepted findings in psychology: that deductive logic and statistical reasoning are not particular strong points among human beings, and that we tend to suffer from confirmation bias—that is, as Cutting explains, “we systematically focus on data that support a view we hold and ignore data that count against it.”


According to Sperber and Mercier, these shortcomings in human reason must mean that reason serves a different evolutionary purpose than what conventional wisdom has heretofore suggested: reason doesn’t help us know what is absolutely true, but is instead a tool to win arguments, to assert what we believe to be true, and thus win control of a given situation.


This conclusion drew heavy criticism.  After all, it sounds as though Sperber and Mercier have denied that truth itself exists, or if it does, that it is knowable.  But Cutting’s reading is a bit more nuanced.  The point is not that truth doesn’t exist, but that reason and argument are means for justifying what we hold to be true, an endeavor essential to the practice of philosophy, and as it happens, one which is inherently social.  Says Cutting:

“The key point is that justification — and therefore knowledge of the truth — is a social process.  This need not mean that claims are true because we come to rational agreement about them.  But such agreement, properly arrived at, is the best possible justification of a claim to truth.  For example, our best guarantee that stars are gigantic masses of hot gas is that scientists have developed arguments for this claim that almost anyone who looks into the matter will accept.”

What interests me is that this finding echoes what writing center theory has maintained for a quite while now.  It’s the same idea that Andrea Lunsford so forcefully articulates in her paper “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.”

Hey Aristotle, why are you writing alone?

Writing centers, says Lunsford, ought not to resemble “storehouses,” where tutors guard the answers and benevolently hand these down to writers.  Yet neither should writing centers resemble “garrets,” where tutors tap into and reveal to writers the knowledge hiding within them.  Lunsford argues that knowledge is a social phenomenon, and thus something that tutors and writers produce in collaboration with one another.


In academia, collaboration as an accepted practice continues to face many obstacles (see Lunsford’s article for some very interesting examples), and when we discuss how to reconcile writing center theory with writing center practice, a topic that frequently comes up is balancing a collaborative ethic against institutional demands, such as rules about plagiarism and a need for academic integrity.


These institutional constraints aside, Sperber’s and Mercier’s work has some interesting implications for how we think of writing centers.  I’m especially interested in what they have to say about reason’s evolutionary significance: if reason, and along with it, the social process of justifying what’s true, are in fact evolutionary developments, then writing centers that value collaborative learning would seem to be far ahead of the curve.  What’s your writing center doing for the cause?