Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What is An Argument?

I am teaching a class this semester called "Critical Reasoning and Writing." This is my first time teaching this class. Today, the first day, I asked my students to write for 20 minutes about this question: What is an argument? And then we talked about it. As usual, I wrote about the question too. Here's what I wrote:

To me, the word "argument" has at least two meanings. The first is something like a heated dispute between people. Like, "My sister pissed me off and we got in an argument," or, "My parents grounded me and we got in an argument." This connotation of the word implies anger, raised voices, maybe even violence. "Arguments of anger," as I would call them, are "won" by who has the loudest voice and the most power.

The second meaning of the word "argument" comes from my academic background. This meaning is more like an honest and reasoned attempt to persuade. Unlike the fist meaning, this one does not imply anger or violence, but rather lengthy discussion and often writing. Unlike the first meaning this one carries the burden of evidence. In an argument with your parents, you do not feel the need to present research and evidence. "Arguments of reason," as I call them, have nothing to do with the loudness of your voice or how much power you have. They have everything to do with reason, evidence, deep thinking, and honest dialogue.

In the public arena, in the media, in political debate, in discussion of social issues, the tone of the argument often vacillates between these two poles: "arguments of anger" and "arguments of reason." When a person, outside of an academic context, makes a statement like, "We need to get rid of all these illegals," or "Obama's health care plan is blatant socialism" or "Muslims are terrorists," there is not the expectation that that person will back up his/her claims with careful research, evidence, discussion with those of different points of view. In an academic context, these statements could not be made without lengthy research and discussion.

I suppose my hope would be that more folks would learn and apply the burdens of academic argumentation to their everyday lives and views, especially when those views are about real human beings. In my English 103 class, I hope to help students (and myself) integrate "Arguments of reason" into our everyday lives. Although it takes more effort and work (and humility) to think this way, it is highly preferable to the alternative, in my opinion.

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