As the academic year ends, it’s time for me to turn to revising Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument. What do I have to keep in mind about argument in the headlines as I look ahead? Given the political situation in America, it would be easy to say that there is no such thing as logical argument anymore. Emotion sometimes so far outweighs logic that it is almost naïve to give any credit to the seemingly old-fashioned notions that were at the heart of teaching classical rhetoric. Partisan politics so distorts people’s thinking that common ground seems impossible to reach. Family members have in many cases given up trying to reason with each other and have had to agree to silently disagree—or to unfriend each other. News is condemned as fake, and journalists are labeled enemies of the people. People of all ages depend increasingly on social media for their news and their opinions about it, and we now have an idea how much those opinions were shaped the last presidential election by a foreign government. Religious leaders dictate public policy, and the system of checks and balances built into our federal government seems to be dangerously out of balance.
The next editions of my textbooks will be published shortly before the 2020 elections. I will write them not knowing how the elections will turn out. That shouldn’t make any difference, and ultimately it doesn’t. I can’t ignore the fact that young people, more than ever, need to be able to construct an argument to defend their opinions and to deconstruct an argument to reveal its flaws, even if the other side seems unwilling to listen. In looking at the current editions with revision in mind, reviewers stressed that we need to keep in mind that there are often not just two sides to an argument. We too often think in terms of a debate, pro and con. An issue like abortion cannot be reduced to those terms. Even gender cannot be viewed as a simple binary anymore. We need more emphasis on finding common ground. In some cases, it is not which side wins but what compromise can be reached. That was the idea behind having whole chapters in Elements entitled "Multiple Viewpoints."
From the time our students started using the Internet to find sources to document their writing, we have had to teach them to evaluate sources. It was so easy—and quick—to accept the first source that popped up online. Now that is most often Wikipedia, in which entries can be written by anyone. Students used papers by students no more advanced than themselves as sources. We have to teach our students to investigate the source for legitimacy and for authority. While we have always had to do that, it was a little easier when an opinion had passed the bar of finding its way into print. We aren’t very likely to force our students back to using solely print sources. After all, many print sources are available online as well. Instead, students need to learn to question who wrote the words on the screen and what authority those writers have. They need to research the organization behind a web site, not just accept information uncritically. They need to understand the biases of sources.
It seems so simple, but we have to teach our students that there still are such things as truth and facts. Yes, photos can be doctored, as we all know, but when multiple sources have on video a person making a statement, it is pretty hard to deny those words came out of his or her mouth. Facts about funding sent to victims of natural disasters, troop deployments, crowd size, voting records, redistricting, numbers of votes cast, numbers of crimes, citizenship status of those convicted of crimes—the list could go on and on—can be verified. Biased as our news sources have become, there are still facts that arguments can be built on. Sure, a writer may have to do some digging to find them, and definitely will have to consider the source, but facts are facts in spite of what anyone says. There is no such thing as an alternative fact. We have to hold our politicians, and everyone else, to a standard of truth.
Textbook authors have acknowledged for years that critical reading goes hand in hand with argumentative writing. Students need practice in understanding arguments and seeing flaws in them before and while they are learning to write their own. They need to go beyond the headlines to read whole opinion essays, to see carefully structured and well supported arguments. And those do exist, from classical readings to the most recent editorials. They need to go beyond the surface of the news to see the reasons behind it. And they need to read opinions that differ from their own. The first steps toward the common ground that we are eventually going to have to find are understanding another point of view and recognizing that on any given subject there may be more than two opposing points of view.