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Why We Need Argument to Save Our World

We’ve forgotten how to argue. Not "yell." Not “persuade.” Not simply “being heard.” We’ve forgotten how to discuss. You see it across the board, from your passionate Facebook friends to the rants of the paid-for pundits on the nightly news. We all recognize it, rage against it, unwittingly participate, and mourn the loss of discourse in the world. But perhaps the hardest thing is to admit one’s role in it.

Today, Education World takes a hard look at the “art of persuasion” and its impact on how we participate in civil discourse. And perhaps more importantly, how the Common Core State Standards’ adoption of “rhetoric” and “argument” might just save our world.

A Shameful Past: Teaching Persuasion

Before the emergence of CCSS, most individual state standards included “persuasion” as a key element of any writer’s or speaker’s toolbox. Decide what you believe. Call it a “claim”. Find evidence that supports it. Change the minds of your readers. For young learners, it was a cornucopia of engagement: How do I get what I want? How do I make people think I am right? For the educator, it was a simple format: the beloved five-paragraph essay: What do you already think? Why are you right?

And yet, something always felt dishonest about teaching “persuasion.” By definition the goal of persuasive writing and speaking is to persuade. But the idea that the goal of any conversation or piece of writing was to win, win, win ... was always a bit unnerving. With “winning” as the goal to any conversation, there is no dialogue. Surely, we want our students to be heard. We want them to be able to formulate their ideas in a clear and logical way. We want them to feel confident that they can participate in the decisions that move our world. “Persuasion” taught them to speak. But it never taught them to listen.

Instead, students dove into countless “research” papers, picking and choosing the elements of evidence that already supported their limited beliefs and opinions on the world. They were wordlessly given license to cut and chop the ideas of anyone with even the slightest facade of ethos to suit their needs and purpose. This is the opposite of what we expect of our modern educated citizens of the world. Not to mention that it is a close-minded, uninformed, and an increasingly all-too-common way to go about your decision-making. “Persuasion” is manipulation, not conversation.

"Persuasion" and the Politicization of the Tweet

And how has “persuasive writing” served us so far? Our culture of “win, win, win” has found itself a new medium and a new audience. Today, the “big ideas” of the world are shared in sound bytes and Facebook posts. Politicians, celebrities, and your next-door neighbor all take to the social media lines to assert, demand, and accuse, in an attempt to persuade the masses. And the best thing about it? There’s no room to substantiate your claim in a 140-character tweet! It’s all about the ethos, and it is absolutely all about that “win, win, win.” For example, despite where you stand on the political spectrum, you should be able to recognize a bold, yet unsupported claim when you see one:

Putting aside one’s knowledge of any of the above subjects, we can all identify a complete disregard for information. Where is the rhetoric? Where are the long hours of research to solidly support your claim upon a foundation of strong and reasonable evidence? The intense evaluation of the ideas of those that disagree with our assessment, in hopes to better understand their intentions and point of view? It’s a logical fallacy nightmare. Our taking to social media to spread our personal political manifestos makes the assumption that nothing in this world is complex: that any idea worth supporting must be able to be boiled down into an easily-consumed delectable niblet of information. Why? Because as soon as the goal of discourse is to “persuade,” we discredit any complexity the conversation might entail.

We need to take “persuasion” out of our academic vocabulary. Because “persuasive people” might ignore the opposing side of an argument completely. If you are simply persuading, you are often ignoring the full picture. Persuasion allows people to push an agenda without facing the criticism. It promotes unyielding assertion without the objective view that facts can sometimes provide.

The Re-Emergence of Argument

Make no mistake, “argument” is not a new idea. The ancients knew the difference between persuasion and argument. What’s happened in the past 100 years or so has been quite a digression. And so, our current state of affairs has merited a re-introduction. In a very real sense, “argument” is persuasion, plus empathy. You might still argue your claim. And yet, the Common Core State Standards’ focus on argument asks that students spend a considerable amount of time truly evaluating and understanding (and yes, even appreciating) the opposing claim. It is rooted in the idea that you are not entitled to your claim until you are able to effectively argue the counterclaim.

And this makes sense, doesn't it? True argument is brave. Argument is not afraid to face the fact that others might disagree. Argument is being able to present your side of an issue. It is about earning your ethos by showing that you completely understand the opposing side, yet still being able to explain logically why your side makes more sense to you or those you represent in the given situation. Methodically, argument tends to be disarming, and therefore more “persuasive,” anyway. You’re more likely to discuss an idea with someone who is willing to listen and can share in your experience.

And best of all, “argument” is not the end-all-be-all to the discussion! When you are arguing, you are participating in a larger discussion that is likely to continue beyond the confines of your essay or debate. And sometimes, after a careful examination of all the facts, common ground can be discovered.... Something the aggressiveness and deceit of “persuasion” could never really achieve on its own.

We need to teach our students how people use the evidence they have to develop their ideas. We need to teach our students how to discuss their reasoning with each other in a respectful and well-informed manner. If we continue to manipulate the facts to support our agendas, we’ll never make it. We need to once again remember Thomas Jefferson’s now haunting words, that a “well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy.”

Where to Start

As you start any work regarding argument with students, do not skip over the significance of this very conscious change in the way we are changing the way we read, write, and speak. Make sure your students understand the implications of the “old ways” and the re-integrated “new.” Be very honest with students that we are looking to transform our world. Make no mistake, the consequences of our focus upon “persuasion” was not just an unhappy coincidence: we taught this—and we were wrong.

To help you frame this discussion with students and your peers, ReadWriteThink has a great comparison chart that drives the idea home (copied below).  Begin to imagine a world where the “tough discussions” in life are filtered through the argumentative process, as well as pointing to the very tangible disservice persuasion has made to our world.




Starting Point:
Identify your topic and choose your side.

Starting Point:
Identify your topic, research your topic, and decide which side to support.

Get the reader to agree with your opinion.

Get the reader to recognize your side of the argument is valid.

1. Combines facts with emotions to convince the reader that the author is “right.”

2. Emotion-based.

3. Ignores counterclaims.

4. Presents only ideas that help establish a position.

5. Only presents one side: the author’s side.

6. Makes claims without evidence.

1. Offers facts, reasons, and evidence to show the author has valid points.

2. Logic-based.

3. Acknowledges the opposing claims.

4. May compare ideas to establish a position.

5. Presents multiple sides but it is clear which is the author’s side.

6. Always provides evidence with claims.

The tone is emotionally charged and more aggressive.

There is a calmer tone of just trying to get the reader to acknowledge the author’s side is worthy of consideration.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.