Great bowls of fire

Why Johnny can’t argue

Pundits have long fretted over how politics are being corroded by today’s culture of talk-radio and TV “debate” shoutfests — where all that matters is stating an opinion, and facts are decidedly secondary. Left-wing critics like to point out that when President Bush prepares to say something that’s just flat-out untrue, he always states it as a “belief” — i.e. “I believe that lower taxes will help balance the budget”. The appearance of sincerity trumps any need to actually prove your point with facts.

The interesting thing is, this delirious embrace of opinions — and wanton disregard for offering proof of your statements — isn’t just the province of politicians and ideologues. It’s now being taught to students, as part of the “new SAT”. In the new version of the test, the old analogies have been dropped in favor of a 25-minute essay, in which students must instantly state and defend their position on a hot-button moral question. In the current issue of the New York Times Magazine, Ann Hulbert wonders precisely what the hell is going on here:

The real problem with the SAT persuasive essay assignment isn’t what it conveys about spontaneity or style but what it suggests how to argue. Students are asked to ponder (quickly) a short excerpt of conventional wisdom about, say, the advisability of following rules, and they are then instructed to “develop your point of view on this issue.” But if the goal of “better writing” is “improved thinking,” as the College Board’s National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges has pronounced, perhaps it’s worth asking whether practice in reflexively taking a position on any potentially polarizing issue is what aspiring college students — or the rest of us — need most.

As those sample essay questions at the start reveal, and as any test-prep book will confirm, at the homiletic heart of the SAT writing assignment is the false dichotomy. The best strategy for a successful essay is to buy into one of the facile premises that inform the question, and then try to sell it as if it were really yours. Essayists won’t be penalized for including false information, either, according to the official guide for graders. “You are scoring the writing,” it instructs, “and not the correctness of facts.”

Well, there you go. In a fascinating — if unintended — foil to Hulbert’s essay, po-mo theorist Stanley Fish published an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Times in which he recounted a totally different approach to teaching kids about how to argue. He divides his students into groups and gives them one semester to create their own language — complete with its own syntax and lexicon. It cannot be any existing language, and it has to be logically complete enough that two speakers who each know it can communicate.

Insane, eh? Yet this has an amazing effect: The kids have to learn about how language works and how it communicates — or obfuscates — meaning. And that, Fish says, is far more useful in teaching students about how to argue than forcing them to do these idiotic defend-a-position-at-all-costs assignments:

Students who take so-called courses in writing where such topics are the staples of discussion may believe, as their instructors surely do, that they are learning how to marshal arguments in ways that will improve their compositional skills. In fact, they will be learning nothing they couldn’t have learned better by sitting around in a dorm room or a coffee shop.

Precisely. Any student can learn to reiterate his or her favorite rant — from Rush Limbaugh or Micheal Moore, depending on how they swing. And that, sadly, is precisely the sort of “skill” the SAT is now pushing.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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