Let’s Have An Argument!

Barbara Wolf Shousha, UNHS Director

No, I do not mean a quarrel, a fight or a row. I mean an argument as classically defined:

“A statement or fact advanced for the purpose of influencing the mind; a reason urged in support of a proposition” (from the Oxford English Dictionary, oed.com, retrieved July 6, 2016).

Sadly, popular culture and the never-ending news cycle give the impression that an argument is a cacophony of shouting voices. It is difficult to sift through clever attacks, snark and personal insults to get to the point. What are these people really saying and why are they saying it?

Too often, what passes for news does not provide any new information but rather puts forward opinions to create a reaction. An opinion is advanced, sides form and individuals “argue” through clever turns of phrase, extraneous facts intended to undermine another person’s credibility and all sorts of inflated language. This may make for good entertainment, but has the observer truly learned anything?

It sounds something like this:

Opinion: Barbara Shousha feels that students should learn the classical form of argument.

Side A: That’s ridiculous!  Nobody cares about that old stuff.  She’s an egghead!

Side B: I think she has a point.

Side A: You only think that because you are educators and everyone knows you don’t live in the real world.

Side B: The real world?  Like where logic and reason reside?  You should visit once in a while.

This kind of back and forth can go on indefinitely with no resolution.

A true argument puts forward a point (often called a proposition or a premise) and surrounds it with supporting facts, context, a consideration of alternate views and a conclusion or call to action.

Some would say, “That seems like a lot of work.” Perhaps it is, for people who just want to hear their own voices. But have you ever listened to someone who is really passionate about their topic? A young boy I know (age 6) gave a beautiful classical argument about why dogs are the best animal. It included all of the elements including his call to action to his mother that they should get a dog!

An argument should be the start of a healthy exchange of ideas. And no, I do not mean, “Hey, your ideas are bad. You should exchange them for mine!” There should be a mutual goal of understanding. You should be able to receive an argument, hold it in your mind to evaluate and either accept it or reject it or challenge the other person to explain it. You can then put forward an argument of your own. It is possible you and the other person may come to agree. You may just agree to disagree. In either case, both of you will have learned something.

The UNHS English curriculum offers many opportunities to use persuasive arguments.  In particular Tenth Grade English 1 ENGH 035 059 asks students to write a persuasive essay using the Six Traits of Writing and Effective Speech Communication ENGH 047 059 asks students give a persuasive speech.

Author: University of Nebraska High School

Accredited online high school program providing award-winning curriculum to students in all 50 states and more than 100 countries.

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