Teaching about Better Arguments in a Fractured Republic: Reflections and Resources

“People generally quarrel because they cannot argue.” ― G. K. Chesterton

It currently seems easy to forget that this is an election year. The COVID-19 pandemic tends to take up most of the airtime for news stories. About this time each year in my high school English courses, I get encouraged listening to my students engage in debate and discussion activities. Those lively discussions are one of the things I’ve missed most due to the stay-at-home restrictions. That got me thinking about resources that I’ve found most helpful for teaching students about good, bad, and ugly approaches to arguable topics. 

Arguments Are Good When Participants Use Good Notions of Argument 

I often tell my students that I’m encouraged about the possibilities for our society when I hear how thoughtfully and civilly they can argue important topics during our in-class debate activities. Those debates are set in a larger context of our ongoing study of arguments. 

Although argument has a long history of helpful use in education, I find that many adult educators seem reluctant to acknowledge and practice it. Some seem offended by the word argument. Years ago, I spent many hours arguing with an educational leader who did not think we should use the word argument as a focus for learning. This was in spite of the centrality of argument found in the Common Core standards and many recommendations for best practice with literacy. A well-known book title captures the relevant claim that just won’t go away: Everything’s an Argument. But that doesn’t mean everyone likes arguments. 

Whether in a family or governmental setting, the best purpose of argument is threefold: To argue what is true, what is valuable, and what we should do in light of our thoughtful convictions about truth and value. “Thoughtful” is a good word to keep in sight: as in we’ve reflected on rather than jumped to our conclusions, and we’re thinking about the other people we argue with. Too often, arguments can turn into mere attempts to “flex” on someone, as one of my students has named such ugly approaches to argument. We tend to see ugly approaches in culture at large, especially over the last decade. The preponderance of name calling and other personal attacks unfortunately constitute the bulk of argument strategies in popular culture and politics. In fairness to my interlocutor from years ago, those ugly versions of argument are probably what he had in mind as he was intensely arguing against argument. 

Three of the general academic categories of argument are Classical, Rogerian, and Toulmin. Explanations of each of these categories can easily be found on the web or in basic textbooks. Basically, the Classical category reaches back to the ancient world and includes thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero. With an aim towards promoting the common good through public deliberation, Classical arguments tended to develop a premise and argue from that foundational claim in pursuit of public flourishing. Rogerian argument grows from the psychological practices of Carl Rogers. Rogerian argument is meant to be a mutually friendly form of exchange in which participants gently offer contrasting claims, perspectives, and details in order to come to better understanding and potential solutions to problems. In the twentieth century, Stephen Toulmin developed a model of argument that he thought better captured the ways that people actually argue. The Toulmin model of argument tends to involve elements of claims, data/evidence, warrants, backing, acknowledgements, counter-claims, and rebuttals–all as part of the process of better understanding the elements and moves that one might find in all sorts of real-life arguments.

As a somewhat modified category, teachers will find what might be called analytical arguments in Advanced Placement English when students are called to explain how literary or rhetorical texts work to suggest meaning, persuasion, or experience. I think it’s fair to say that such analytical arguments borrow a conceptual framework from Aristotle’s classical understanding of rhetoric while also using elements from the twentieth-century Toulmin model to more thoroughly understand how argument and persuasion work in texts. As students develop literary or rhetorical analysis essays, they closely read texts, draft a “defensible” thesis, and develop a “line of reasoning” for their commentaries about the significant evidence that they find in their reading. One could also argue that Advanced Placement synthesis arguments likewise combine Classical and Toulmin approaches while also challenging students to critically incorporate multiple sources as part of their arguments about some real-world topic.

At its best academically, a good discussion is inseparable from a good argument. Reflecting on such good roles for argument in school and learning, one might wonder what happened to our larger society? I find two brief sources particularly helpful for sharing with others concerning this question.

Arguments Have Often Gotten Bad or Ugly

Most of our public political arguments and discussions have become mangled for several reasons. One of the most accessible explanations for how we got to the current state of ugly arguments comes from Jonathan Haidt and Sam Abrams in “The top 10 reasons American politics are so broken.” The contributing factors include generational changes, technology influences, social class affiliation of parties, the demise of cross-party friendships, and the end of the Cold War. The loss of the Cold War cohesive influence is especially interesting for our time with the COVID-19 crisis. Where the Cold War tended to have a somewhat unifying effect with all Americans in facing a common antagonist, the Coronavirus seems to be playing a similar role for us now as we consider ways that “We are all in this together.” Nevertheless, it is likely that some political campaigns on both sides in the coming month will find ways to use this crisis to their partisan advantage. 

Joan Blades and John Gable vividly capture the role of social media in amplifying the problems explored in Haidt and Abrams’ article. In their TEDTalk “Free yourself from your filter bubble,” Blades and Gable explain that the nature of social media makes it far too easy to find people who think the same ways as you do, which typically leads to increasingly unhealthy, narrow-minded clumping of opinions that they call “filter bubbles.” In place of thoughtful discussions, one finds the mere amassing of antagonistic posturing. I find these short presentations helpful for giving students an overview of some of the main trends and causes of bad and ugly argumentation habits. Blades and Gable also offer some helpful strategies for repairing our mutual problems with political brokenness and dense social bubbles. 

Arguments Can Be Better and Make Us Better  

Even though they come from differing progressive and conservative perspectives, Blades and Gable’s TEDTalk offers a delightfully nerdy version of what friendly conversation around arguable topics can look like. It is also interesting and amusing to see their common love for the Star Trek characters of popular culture. By no coincidence, Star Trek stories often involve main characters who seek to boldy help reconcile the hostile, warring factions. Each of these TEDTalk participants have worked to help real-life people overcome warring factions of argumentation through technological resources or social engagement strategies.  

To help work against the filter bubble problem with a positive use of technology, John Gable developed AllSides.com. This site presents news stories by topic and also lines them out side-by-side according to “News from the Left,” “News from the Center,” and “News from the Right.” The site also provides helpful guides to better conversations about media, news bias, and arguable topics. Each year I introduce students to this resource with favorable responses, and I look forward to expanding its use in future years. Personally, I find the site useful for cross-checking opinions about current events.  

Socially, Joan Blades teamed up with several dialogue experts to create Living Room Conversations. to develop opportunities to help people participate in discussions in ways that don’t end up in bad and ugly arguments. This organization and its website offers some great strategies for having better conversations about arguable topics. Living Room Conversations’ stated purpose is “to facilitate connection between people despite their differences, and even identify areas of common ground and shared understanding.” The simple focus on gathering around food and enjoying mutually respectful discussions about arguable topics is very appealing. I’ve had moments of this with friends and neighbors, but I do hunger for more. Currently, the site has moved its meetings to online venues. That might be good to try out this summer, once school is out. Meanwhile, I’m wondering about adapting some of the conversation strategies for potential use between students or within families. 

This week, I’m especially enjoying the wise insights about better public arguments found in Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build. Levin examines the centrality of institutions for helping us grow more personally and publicly virtuous. I’m increasingly noticing this pattern: Like arguments, institutions can be good, bad, or ugly. Like arguments, people seem averse to using the word institution in positive ways. Levin argues that whether we lean left or right politically, we need to thoughtfully commit to institutions and to improving them, so that in the process, we can improve ourselves. More to come on public school connections to these ideas of commitment, improvement, institutions, and virtues in a future post or two. 

Invitation to Reflect: 

  1. Do you tend to think of the word argument as good, bad, or ugly? Does it depend on the context? How so? 
  2. Do you easily discuss topics with people who have very different values than you do? 
  3. Are there any resources from John Gable or Joan Blades that sound good for using with your classroom? 
  4. What are some ways we can help the word argument have a better and more helpful reputation in our communities? 

For Further Reading and Reflection: 

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, by Yuval Levin

A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, by Yuval Levin 

After-posting Additions:

TEDTalk on “The lost art of democratic debate,” by Michael Sandel [I use Sandel each year with my juniors. He’s a master of leading large groups through thoughtful discussions about arguable topics. To help participants argue well, he starts with low-intensity topics (flutes) and works toward increasingly charged issues (Casey Meyers’ PGA golf cart issue that went clear to the Supreme Court; a brief foray into discussing traditional versus same-sex marriage views). Sandel rightly reminds us that we shouldn’t leave our deepest personal values out of important public discussions and debates.]

The Craft of Research, by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. [This book has been instrumental in improving my own practices and teaching about how to develop research arguments. The authors apply Toulmin to the research process in ways that help enhance formal and informal research on any topic. Their process approach can relate to any academic discipline if you allow for differences in particular style expectations. If you haven’t encountered this source before, any edition will prove helpful to your thinking about better arguments and better research.]

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