teaching argument

June 15, 2009

Aristotle (credit: Wikimedia)

Aristotle (credit: Wikimedia)

I recently came across this article by Jay Heinrichs about teaching young kids to argue. I highly recommend reading it (it’s short), but I’ll summarize and perhaps add a bit of my own thoughts here.

While the thought of teaching kids to argue more seems crazy, the point of the articles is that when they learn the formal framework of arguing, it makes kids much more civil and far more persuasive. It teaches them that acting out of their emotions (i.e. a temper tantrum) is not an effective way of convincing the other person of something.

Heinrichs explains what I think is one of the most important concepts of polemical discourse: an argument is not a fight. Unfortunately, many people think arguing is by nature a negative activity, like a fight is. Arguments are much more subtle and necessarily involve winning the other side over, which prevents the negative emotions like revenge and bitterness that often come from losing a fight.

Too many people, at least by my anecdotal evidence, are afraid of any type of conflict, including an argument. Arguments get ideas on the table, where they can be aired, exercised, and dismissed if found weak. Furthermore, arguing builds social bonds, because in arguing with someone else, you’re acknowledging that they have a point at least worth listening to and considering. And, as Heinrichs explains, argument helps eliminates banes of social and professional relationships, passive aggressiveness and groupthink, respectively.

Heinrichs approaches the framework of argument from the classical, Aristotelian perspective, by breaking an argument down into its three constituent parts: logos, ethos, and pathos. Simplistically, logos is the logical part of an argument (“Having a later curfew would allow me to bond more with my peers”). Ethos is the part of the argument that appeals to the character of a person (“I’m a good guy and thus would never stay out after curfew”). And pathos is the part of the argument that appeals to the emotions of the other side (“Don’t you trust me?”).

I don’t know much about formal argument or rhetoric, but I like the didactic nature that this approach implies. When I have kids and teach them about arguing, I’ll have to study up.

Not only does teaching kids to argue make them better at getting their way (which most of us can acknowledge is in sum a good thing for a person in life), it also makes them far less susceptible to the rhetorical tricks of others (“drill here, drill now!”). In short, it teaches them not to accept what anyone says at face value. It teaches them to dissect an argument aimed at them into its parts, thus (often) rendering it impotent. It teaches them to be skeptics, and we need more skeptics in our world.

Heinrichs also mentions the very useful effects this process has when his kids encounter advertising. Advertising is simply an argument to buy a product, and the ability to deconstruct that argument renders most advertising useless.

We need to get back to a more civil way of disagreeing about politics and everything else, and the best way to get there is to teach people — especially children — the art of argument.

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3 Responses to “teaching argument”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    “We need to get back to a more civil way of disagreeing about politics.”

    Really?

    An anonymous tipster told me your girlfriend writes for a left-wing hate site that focuses on making HITS all day long.

    How do you justify this, Mr. Wulsin? How?!!

    • Drausin Says:

      I was actually thinking more of the right-wing fox news fest. I’d actually file TP’s work under the “constructive criticism” label because, although partisan, it’s about specific hits, usually on what people say, rather than fear-mongering or overly simplistic talking points a la Fox.


  2. Exellent post, Drausin, and thanks for tipping me off to a useful and insightful article on parenting, which might come in handy one day. One of the ways Socrates took argument to the next level was by showing that professional arguers, in his day the Sophists, only argued for argument’s sake, but that he – and his students – argued with an eye toward discovering the truth. What Socrates and the Sophists shared was a commitment to sound method and intellectual fair play, which I think are invaluable lessons for children as well as adults. We need to be wary of producing modern-day Sophists (perhaps these are your FOX News ideologues or their left-leaning adversaries), however, who are mere technicians of argument but not lovers of truth. I know you and I disagree about whether a universal moral truth or beauty can be discovered, but I think we can both believe in a relentless dedication to the trying. As the article makes clear, the important thing to teach is an obsession with the outcomes of argument not just rhetorical combat on its own.


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