[Paleopsych] Argumentation in a Culture of Discord

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CHE: Argumentation in a Culture of Discord
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.5.20


    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. A few years ago, one of them -- "G.M." -- wrote me an
    e-mail message that exemplifies many students' position:

    "In reading your ideas over the difficulty of [getting] students to
    accept an argumentative thesis, I wonder ... how much one could say
    that it [has been] caused by the pre-millennial movement of
    pacificism? In my lifetime I have not seen something so polarizing as
    war and thus I have not felt the amount of momentary certainty that
    past generations have. ... Violence is on another level entirely, for
    I do not believe in war, but confrontation's very redeemable qualities
    are normally overlooked. ... "

    G.M. seemed to think I was advocating a verbal violence that he -- his
    whole generation -- was loath to undertake. While I responded that
    written argument was by its nature nonviolent, I nonetheless
    understood from whence he drew his conclusions: He saw "argument" in
    media-defined terms.

    Part of the problem of teaching argumentative writing is that
    "argument" means "heated, contentious verbal dispute" as well as
    "argumentation." Some writing texts make this confusion worse: One in
    front of me uses a handsome cover illustration by Julia Talcott that
    shows two people from whose open mouths issue, respectively, a red
    triangle and a blue circle. I don't think this kind of visual is
    likely to help matters. Like the figures in "Laughing Stock," the
    media feature arguers who have entrenched, diametrically opposed

    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, like G.M., 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." Philosophicaland, more generally,
    argumentativediscourse 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.

    Now this might be very well for philosophical or literary-critical
    discourse, but what of scientific discourse? What of historical or
    legal discourse? I suggest that all these fields require an
    argumentative stance, if not in the papers that students write at the
    freshman or even undergraduate level, then in professional journals
    and monographs, and that stance should be the model for student
    writing. While these models differ some from field to field, all
    academic writing starts with a problem, a hypothesis, or a question.
    And the idea is not to solve this problem or answer that question with
    previously extant notions. This kind of writing should offer something
    original, imaginative, something the audience would not have thought
    of before and might even initially reject. Yet it invites that
    rejection, seeks out disconfirmatory material, naysaying positions.
    Working against the initial rejection, it logically persuades the
    audience how a proposed solution betters other current solutions,
    covers a wider range of data, or undermines previous notions. In
    short, this kind of writing looks at other answers and engages them,
    proving them in need of some rethinking, recontextualizing, or
    reimagining. And though its answer might not be perfect, it's closer
    -- it asymptotically approaches a truth.

    Yet can every student be an Einstein? Should we urge every student to
    come up with writing that resembles the professional writing of one's
    discipline, when many students have difficulty constructing
    paragraphs, constructing sentences, or construing meaning of central
    texts? Probably not at every level. I know that much writing
    instruction and many writing programs (such as, for example, the one I
    direct) are often expected to "help students learn how to punctuate."
    And I know that's an important tool. I sympathize with professors who
    must wade through mounds of hastily composed, unproofread, usage-dull
    essays that bring only a fixed glaze to their readers' eyes.

    But if we focus on defining our genre and discourse, showing students
    what it is that we do, we might just get students excited about
    discovering new ideas, about reimagining old problems, about writing
    something that somehow matters. Then they will often realize the need
    to present their ideas in a more "correct," formal English. So they'll
    work on their papers, putting them through multiple drafts, consulting
    with tutors, with us. They might even start perusing usage texts. In
    short, we need to work toward providing students fulfillment in the
    very process of writing, rather than in only the grade we give to the

    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. Like consumerism, this pedagogy reduces enormously complex
    issues down to simplistic solutions: canned answers qua canned soup.
    Or as one of my colleagues puts it, "Human beings, pork and beans,
    they're all the same!"

    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

    How is this "exciting" or at all attractive? Why would anyone want to
    engage in "academic" discourse, except for some deferred reward, such
    as, well, a college degree? Why, in a larger sense, do we do what we
    do? (It isn't for the money.) I think there are larger rewards to
    scholarship, to argumentative writing. We have a curiosity about how
    things work (or fail to), and the writing we do attempts to satisfy
    that curiosity, to explain problems to ourselves, to others. Though
    Richard D. Altick's book The Scholar-Adventurers might be a hard sell
    to the general public, his fundamental idea still stands: There are
    risk and danger to scholarship; it takes some courage to undertake it.
    For example, we might figure out more how the universe operates, but
    that discovery might well undermine our previously held conceptions.
    So while our writing might not serve to amuse, and it might not gather
    miscellaneous thumbprints in the waiting room of a car-repair shop, it
    might just advance human knowledge. Lofty, perhaps, but I think true.

    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?

    I don't want to disparage consumer culture too much, since I often
    define myself against its dazzling and dreamy backdrop, but consumer
    culture (and the media, which are a part of it) often works against us
    in higher education. It makes arguments all the time, but they're not
    sound, intellectual arguments. It manufactures a need, it contrives a
    teleology. For example, now there's an even better TV or home gym or
    soap to buy; now you can improve your looks, your skin, your mood,
    your erectile capacity. In short, the consumer myth suggests that some
    consumer products can end, even satisfy, our hydra-headed desire. So
    the culture offers the beauteous product with one tentacle, but if you
    take it, two new beckoning heads pop up. More insidiously, consumer
    discourse, by concretizing satisfactions for the desires it creates,
    implies that any desires not satisfiable by culture -- i.e., not
    purchasable -- can only be perverse or bizarre; any complicated
    solutions, absurd.

    Student writing resembles in microcosm the consumer-product myth
    insofar as it offers contrived problems for which there are equally
    contrived, predictable, prepackaged solutions. Indeed, this writing
    too often offers ideas that can be supported relatively easily, with
    abundant, even overwhelming, evidence. 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

    Nothing wrong with that, is there? Well, there is. 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 studentsthe
    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. Of course students don't initially like this model: It's not
    very tidy. It doesn't offer an easy answer or position. It seems to
    waver, or to embody a predetermined "flip-flop" mentality. (This is
    the kind of thing that weakened John Kerry's credibility with voters.)
    But at the same time, students know that the model is better than the
    five-paragraph essay. 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.

    Why so? I think this might stem from a very simple human emotion that
    both the culture -- and many writing assignments, too -- seems
    desperate to eradicate: longing. Frederick Exley, in A Fan's Notes,
    talks about this issue. After college, his protagonist plans to get a
    certain kind of apartment in New York, a certain kind of job, and a
    certain kind of girlfriend. He even plans to be a "Genius." He has all
    these longings that need to be fulfilled. But in fact, what he hadn't
    really learned in college was that longings are better left
    unfulfilled: "Literature is born out of the very longing I was so
    seeking to suppress," he writes. Writing argument is all about longing
    -- a longing for the truth. And this longing is inherently

    Emerson frequently argued for the value of "conation," that is, the
    perpetual striving for something. We don't want to perpetually strive
    -- or long -- for anything, much less the truth. We want more
    immediate gratification: Get there, solve it, and get out. Consider
    Iraq -- a war in which our desire for a "that's that" resolution has
    smashed up against a problem defying easy solution. It's a war that
    has challenged our American notion of who we are -- are we people who
    use torture, for example? -- at the same time that it's thrown into
    relief our "can do" notion of ourselves. And what do people think
    about this war? I don't think they want to think about it. But it's
    not that they're lazy or craven. Nor am I implying that the desire for
    immediate gratification is wicked -- it's just not something provided
    by intellectual discourse or argument. People simply haven't been
    given the right models of how to think. That's our job; that's what
    academic argument's about. Jon Stewart was right to have attacked
    Crossfire and its brand of discourse. Now it's up to us to create an
    intellectual alternative -- not just for our students, but for the
    public as well.

    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.

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