Tuesday, September 8, 2015

It's not what you argue, it's how well you argue it (and why that's bs)

There's a phrase anyone pursuing a degree in the English will hear again and again:  "It's not what you argue, it's how well you argue it."  There are two very different interpretations of that statement, and in my experience far too many students and professors follow the poorer.  Ideally, it will be taken to mean that the position the student takes will be considered on its own merits, rather than what the professor personally feels is correct or what the received wisdom may be.  Too often, however, it's taken to mean that the student should provide the best argument for his/her position, regardless of what the position may be, or how strong the best argument is.  To demonstrate the difference, I want to share what was likely the single most frustrating moment of my undergraduate career.  It was the first day of American Literature 1865-1912.  The class was for junior and seniors in the English department, so it should be assumed that everyone there should know what they're doing.  The class had been split up into groups and given a packet of Emily Dickinson poems, and each group had to analyze an assigned poem from the packet.  One of the poems was "I taste a liquor never brewed":

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove's door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

If I were to ask you what this poem is about, you'd probably answer, pretty quickly.  Nature.  In the most immediate, prevalent sense, this poem is about the great joys and beauty of nature.  So, when the spokesperson for the group assigned "I taste a liquor never brewed" answered that question with "the oppression of women," we were all a bit confused.  The professor asked for an explanation, which he got.  "Well, bees are feminine and landlords are masculine, and the landlords are forcing the bees out."  The professor then asked what it was about on  a surface level.  The answer:  "I don't know."

Simply put, the group, or at least one of its members, went into the poem convinced that it would be about the oppression of women.  So they came up with the best argument they could.  The problem is, sometimes the best argument for a position is still incredibly weak.  Unfortunately, this professor (and at least one other I had) encourages this type of thought and method.  Start with a conclusion, and find the best evidence for the conclusion.  There's a term for this: sophistry.  

The simple fact is, what you argue is important.  Because some positions are indefensible, or rely entirely on ignoring all contradicting information.  This falls into the broader trend of people believing that their opinions are as valid as any other, regardless of how well-informed or supported it is.  The problem is that, in my experience, these people seem to never, or very rarely, get challenged.  So instead of changing their ways or leaving the English department, we get bloated with people who can't actually think critically, and who's only skill is to cherry-pick information and string it into an persuasive essay (persuasive only if you haven't actually read the text yourself, because if you have, the problems with these essays become immediately apparent).


  1. I wish to bring up:
    "The Karate Kid: Daniel is the REAL Bully"

    1. Confession time: I've never actually seen The Karate Kid.