Effective Topics for Student Argumentation
An abiding principle: In defining ignorance for our emergent century, futurist Alvin Toffler stated that “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Toffler’s definition is often debated; however, in today’s information age, it’s often necessary to “unlearn” what we know before we can understand new information that permeates our lives. Because it is human nature to “hold on” to old knowledge, we rarely use an open-minded approach to new information on old topics. Instead we attempt to sustain our personal bias by integrating, or even distorting new information. In extreme cases, otherwise logical people will deny the undeniable because their attachments are so vital to their personal identities.
Problematic topics: It’s difficult for anyone to develop traditional argumentation skills when his or her sense of self or security is emotionally and blindly attached to one side or the other of a controversial topic. Subsequently the most popular and heated topics of our day offer a challenge that can stunt the application of an open mind. Topics such as abortion, smoking, parenting, birth control, and the death penalty, are “ previously learned” by most students through contact with parents, religious leaders, and educators. Consequently, a student’s position on similar controversies is frequently yoked to his or her self image as it exists at home, or among friends.
Of course emotional attachment to previous knowledge has always interfered with one’s ability to write a formal arguments. However, the application of logic and reason once held a much more admirable position in the minds of most students. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the millennium the growth of “argument as entertainment” has undermined the credibility of the tenet that effective argument must rely on the logic of undefiled reason.
A contemporary complication: Today, controversies real and imagined are exploited daily by pundits whose need for personal fame override the true objectives of any controversy. Commentators as diverse as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews, and Jon Stewart imply that argument is a sport without rules. The need for ratings and celebrity generates arguments live on fear, stoke anger, and discount any semblance of logic or reason. Argumentation in our public media has turned in to an unrecognizable mutation of argument through logic and reason.
This distorted perception of argument also resides in the “cloud” of the world-wide web, where unfettered communication receives advertising money based on the number of “hits” received by a web-site. Ubiquitous communication methods such as personal blogs, texting, Face-book, and Twitter contribute to the marginalization of logic and reason as core requirements in argument.
It will take an inestimable time for our communication culture to discover that logic and reason are the best ways to gain mutual understanding and cooperation. Meanwhile, regardless of current trends, every student deserves a chance to experience the effectiveness of using formal argument to resolve controversial issues.
Revisiting the purpose of argumentation: The purpose of teaching the process of formal argument is to help students experience how, research, focus, logic, and tangible proof can help an individual affect the nature of his or her world. To facilitate this learning process, we need to avert, as much as possible, the impact of previous bias and cultural based understandings that can create barriers to learning the academic process of argument.
Strategic overview: The basic strategy is to assign topics that avert the disjointed effect of public controversy and media hype by using topic selection that changes the field of play. Listed below are two distinctly different approaches to topic development: 1. Personal controversies which ask the student to explore his or her real life, and 2. Sample historical controversies which ask students to investigate the past.
Personal topics: While some of these topics are subject of public discussion, personal involvement can motivate the writer to try and change someone’s mind, rather than just produce an emotional harangue to dismiss the opposition.
Controversy begins at home:
A family member wants a pet. The pros and cons of this change are easy to document, and the student can make either side of this argument.
Addiction threatens the family structure. The family must decide on whether to have an intervention. It can be alcohol, drugs, or even hoarding. How should it work?
Family traditions are threatened. The student wants to attend a party rather than visit grandmother on thanksgiving.
Family habits threaten family health. The student observes how codependency is leading to excessive or unhealthy eating.
Religious influences are dividing the family. The church and its activities are loosing their influence on the student and a parent is constantly nagging the child.
Controversy follows you to school:
Danger threatens loyalty. Is there ever a situation where you should go to authorities to inform them about something that is dangerous?
Should you do something against your nature. A gang asks you to join. Your friends use illegal substances. A friend is becoming a bully.
When sports interfere with your grades. Do you quit the team? Do you study more? Do you find easier coursed to take?
When should you ask for help? You can’t read the assignments. You are being abused by an adult. You can’t afford lunch. Somebody is bullying you.
Sexual opportunity clouds your mind. Are you in love? Can you resist, or shouldn’t you? Do you know how to prevent consequences that can change your life?
Historical Topics: When personal involvement is too volatile for students, another approach is to change the field of argument from the present to the past. Every change in our nation’s history was part of a controversy at one time. The following list is a sample selection of controversial historical topics that can be easily researched, and provide plenty of opportunity for the student to take sides.
Prohibition: Although the constitutional amendment to stop the sale of alcohol was ratified in 1919, it was preceded by the arguments of various temperance movements beginning in 1830. How did this amendment ever happen?
The Federal Income Tax: The modern federal income tax began in 1913, but it was not our first. Loss of federal revenue led to the first national income tax during the War of 1812. It was repealed in 1872 after being opposed by many as usurious. Was it a good idea?
The Boston Tea Party: The dumping of tea into Boston Harbor was the penultimate act of Americans opposing the English Tea Act of 1773. Surprisingly, there are definitely two sides to this story.
Draft Evasion (Vietnam Era): Americans have evading conscription at least since the Mexican American war, but the resistance against the Vietnam is iconic. Some say that draft resistance means fleeing to Canada. Others say that President Bush evading the draft by using his fathers influence to be inducted into a “safe” role during the war. Is draft evasion always anti-patriotic?
Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938: President Franklin Roosevelt signed this law when congress was out of session because otherwise it would not pass. It had been opposed by the courts, and congress for several years. Its primary purpose was to ban oppressive child labor, set a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour, and limit the work week to 44 hours. Was Roosevelt evading the purpose of the congress, or was he helping the nation?
The 1877 Railroad strike: It was the first great national strike in U.S. History, and it was violently controversial. When the Pittsburgh rail workers struck, the local militia were sympathetic so the governor called in troops from Philadelphia who ended up firing into a crowd, killing at least twenty people, including women and three children. Who was at fault?
Public Education: Horace Mann and Henry Barnard are often cited as prime movers in the establishment of the concept of free public education for everyone. By 1900 free elementary education was available nationwide. When Education became compulsory in most states by 1925 not everyone was happy. In the supreme court decision Pierce v. Society of Sisters, it was ruled that students could attend private schools instead. Was this a good ruling?
The Department of Energy: Originally known as the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Energy was relaunched during the Oil Crises of the 1970s when the government determined that in order to ensure a constant supply of energy, government oversight was appropriate. The DOE is now involved in developing new sources of energy, and some industries complain that its regulatory role impedes the growth of private industry. What do you think?
In conclusion a beginning: The history books are filled with controversies and resolutions, no matter how imperfect. The same is true about our lives, and the lives of our students. These are just two “non-obvious” resources that provide endless opportunities for us to practice the techniques of argumentation.
We can’t legislate or force the “unlearning” of biased information. However, if students can become more familiar with the effectiveness of thoroughly researched, logically developed, and reasonably presented argumentation, the process of unlearning may not seem so threatening. Unlearning what we already know is not giving up on who we are. Instead it empowers us to learn how to affect the world around us