Saturday, May 21

Argumentation in a Culture of Discord

[Abridged] Last October the comedian-philosopher Jon Stewart did writing teachers a great service. Accosting the hosts of CNN's Crossfire, Stewart accused them of shortchanging the American public by failing to offer a forum for genuine debate, and by reducing issues to black/white, right/wrong dichotomies. CNN apparently agreed, as it canceled the show after a 23-year run. And while I certainly admit that Stewart himself argued unfairly, his point nonetheless stands: Our media do not provide a forum for actual debate. Instead they're a venue for self-promotion and squabbling, for hawking goods, for infomercials masquerading as news or serious commentary. In terms of discussing issues, they offer two sides, pick one: Either you are for gay marriage or against it, either for abortion or for life, either for pulling the feeding tube or for "life."

This failure to provide a forum for argumentative discourse has steadily eroded students' understanding of "argument" as a concept. For decades my college writing classes have stressed the need to write papers with an argumentative edge. Yet students don't get it. Either they don't understand what I mean, or they reject the whole enterprise. Students typically don't want to attempt "argument" or take a controversial position to defend, probably because they've seen or heard enough of the media's models -- Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, or Al Franken, to name a few -- and are sick of them. If I were an 18-year-old college freshman assigned an argumentative essay, I'd groan in despair, either because I found the food-fight-journalism model repulsive or because I didn't feel strongly enough about anything to engage in the furious invective that I had all too often witnessed. Maybe the unanticipated consequence of the culture of contentious argument -- and this, I think, was Stewart's larger point -- is the decline in the general dissemination of intellectual, argumentative discourse more broadly construed.

I propose that we teach students more about how intellectual discourse works, about how it offers something exciting -- yet how when it succeeds, it succeeds in only approaching understanding. The philosopher Frank Plumpton Ramsey puts it bluntly but eloquently: "Meaning is mainly potential." Philosophical and, more generally, argumentative discourse presents no irrefutable proofs, no indelible answers. In fact, the best writing of this kind tends not to answer but to raise questions, ones that perhaps the audience hadn't previously considered. Or to put it in terms my college-age nephew uses, when you're writing argument, don't go for the slam-dunk.

At the same time, we should make students aware that they're not alone on the court. We need, that is, to emphasize more the need for counterarguments, which inevitably force writers to place themselves in the audience's position and to attempt to imagine what that audience values and feels -- what objections it might intelligently raise. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill asserts that 75 percent of an argument should consist of counterarguments. And, further, writers should not merely parrot these, but must "know them in their most plausible and persuasive form ... must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of." Presenting and empathizing with counterarguments force an author to go somewhere new, to modify her initial position into one more nuanced, more complex, more problematic -- perhaps to one of greater potential, to use Ramsey's formulation.

Not surprisingly, that kind of thought and writing process are difficult to teach. It's easier to give "evaluative" writing assignments for which there are more or less clear-cut answers: Summarize this. Give a précis of that. Answer this question. Give us an outline. Fill in the blank. True or false?

Using writing only as evaluative tool, these assignments invoke the consumerlike currency-exchange model. Think of how in the course of a semester so much of a discipline's dialectical ambiguity emerges, yet how often we will use "evaluative" writing assignments such as the aforementioned, with the expressed purpose of seeing if students "got" the "material," which even for us is slippery and elusive. And the transitive verb really matters here: I "got" a new iPod; I "got" a pair of Gap jeans; I "got" John Rawls's "veil of ignorance" concept; I "got" an A. This pedagogy resembles the consumer myth: There is an answer (a product, an idea, a methodology, a theory, a grade); it's this.

By offering such assignments, we unwittingly embrace what the media have led people to believe that intellectual debate and discourse consist of. People on shows such as Crossfire stake out a position, and they iterate and reiterate that position. They give examples of what they mean, and "defend" themselves by ignoring or deliberately misconstruing vicious attacks from the opposing side. But this is not intellectual discourse; it's discourse packaged as product. Academic, intellectual discourse -- true debate, the attempt to genuinely advance knowledge, the use of imaginative arguments in general -- cannot be easily captured in a half-hour television program. Such discourse requires time and labor. It requires sustained analysis and construction of an intended audience. It requires careful marshaling of evidence, organization of ideas, rewriting, rethinking. It may seem a little boring to listen to, and is often too dense to grasp at first hearing.

Most people never encounter such discourse. And most students, on entering college, have no idea of what it's like. They've come from a culture that wants answers, not nuanced problematizations, not philosophy. They've been conditioned, as have most Americans, to seek out a position where a simple choice will solve the problem. They've been conditioned to see ideas as being part of a marketplace, just like sweatshirts, snowboards, or songs, and when they are asked to produce ideas, they look to that marketplace for a model. And students do this with their research papers as much as with their arguments. How often, in fact, does a student's research paper look like an amateur journalist's report of multiple facts and views, a superficial survey of x number of sources, with no argument even implied?

Consider, for example, the "five-paragraph essay" so often taught in high schools around the country and further abetted by the new SAT exam. Paragraph one offers an introduction, including a thesis at the end of the introduction. It's best if this thesis has three points. The subsequent three paragraphs develop and explain these thesis-supporting points. The last paragraph, the conclusion, sums up the paper and restates the thesis.

It resembles the script for commercials. It inhibits, even prohibits freedom of thought. It's static -- more noise than signal. There's no real inquiry going on, no grappling with complexities. It seeks only support, and readily available support at that. It can appear to be heated, resembling the screaming-heads model. But it's one-sided, and it goes nowhere, except to its inevitable end, which resembles or reproduces its beginning.

When we try to teach argument in the classroom, we have to fight a model of discourse that, zombielike, still stalks many classrooms. At the same time, we're pressed to provide a better model for students- the reasoned, calm approach, the one that engages and responds to counterarguments, that strives only to approach an understanding. The model for this in public discourse is as hard to find as the genre is to explain or justify. It's no surprise that we can't stick an ice pick through the five-paragraph monster's gelid heart.

The best argumentative writing expands and transforms the ideas of the writer. It questions itself, actively seeking out emergent problems along the way. And it ends not with a definitive, an in-your-face "So there!" (or a "You should just read the Bible!"), but probably with more complex questions, ones that push the continuum of the subject matter. One student told me writing in the argumentative mode was "scary." It's just not something they've been taught to do -- yet its being tantamount to a transgressive act can make it much more attractive.

Frank L. Cioffi, an assistant professor of writing and director of the writing program at Scripps College, is author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers, published this month by Princeton University Press.