Unlike other cultures, Americans are encouraged to argue from a young age, in school.
We all know that our national politics has become incredibly divisive. As a writing teacher, it naturally makes sense that I would attribute a lot about the current state of affairs to the way in which we teach writing in our schools.
“Argue your position. Defend your thesis. Attack the other side.” This is what we’re taught in our high school English class. I never questioned this argumentative approach to writing until I saw how other cultures approached their writing. I teach English to Japanese college students at a language school in Boston. My students are not very good at argumentative essays; they often weaken their position by acknowledging the validity of the opposing viewpoint. Sometimes they even include three or four different perspectives on an issue. By the end of their essay, I’m not always sure where they stand. My students are so focused on group unity and consensus building that they don’t know how to write, by American standards. Our American faculty members are always brainstorming about how we can better teach our students to argue and defend their opinions: “They’re not going to leave Boston without learning how to argue,” we declare. But lately, I’ve been wondering if maybe we’re the ones who might learn something from my students’ “bad writing” style.
The American approach to writing reflects our cultural bias towards dualism; we love epic struggles between two giants: Democrat vs. Republican; East Coast vs. West Coast; AFC vs. NFC; Mac vs. PC; Coke vs. Pepsi. So it’s not surprising that we teach writing as a blood sport between competing ideas, where you defend your thesis from the first paragraph to the bitter end: crush your opponent’s thesis. And the reader must know where you stand, or else you’ve failed as a writer. But this zero sum approach is getting old, both on the page and in our politics.
Dualism might make for a good boxing match, but it doesn’t serve you very well when tackling complex social or political issues. Why must we break down every issue into two sides? What is so magical about the number two? Why not say, five, or twelve, or twenty-six? Aren’t there at least twelve different perspectives on globalization, for example? Real life is more like a spectrum, and less like a light switch.
Another tendency that we foster through our writing pedagogy is the willingness of the author – and the reader – to attach their identity to the position being advanced. “He is a conservative; he is a liberal.” This denotes a strong adhesiveness to that position that would not be implied simply by saying: “He has conservative opinions.” We don’t merely have opinions; we are our opinions. How can we convince someone else that they’re wrong when doing so requires them not merely to reject their opinion, but to jettison their very identity? This merging of our identity with our opinion is encouraged as early as middle school, in the obligatory classroom debate, where we divide students into two camps and ask that each side defeat the other side in a verbal war of attrition. The debate is the argumentative essay personified: it’s not about consensus; it’s about winning. Whose side are you on?
I once ran a debate club at my school, and the participants were all Japanese women. It was like pulling teeth trying to get an actual argument going among this group, so eager were they to see the other side’s perspective. The tone of the debate was highly cordial and undeniably boring, and if I had to give a grade, they would have all failed miserably. It would’ve made for terrible television. But after watching our own ugly presidential debates last fall, I wonder if maybe these Japanese women might have been on to something, while I was unsuccessfully egging them on to engage in verbal jousting, Boston style.
There are other forms of writing that encourage more circumspection and nuance, such as the compare & contrast essay, reflection papers, journals, narrative essays, etc., but in my high school, the argumentative essay was the gold standard of writing. And in this gold standard of writing, the greatest taboo is changing your mind, midway through your essay. That’s terrible writing, we’ve all been taught. There’s a place for changing your mind, but not in the most popular vehicle for written self-expression in American schools. Is it so surprising then, that you never see guests on political talk shows change their minds, midway through a debate? Do a Google search for: “guest changes his or her mind on MSNBC or Fox News,” and see how many results you find.
Now, I’m not endorsing a postmodern world of moral relativism where we eschew any type of conflict or disagreement. There is such a thing as right and wrong, and sometimes you need to do battle to defend what is right, to the very end. I recognize that. But when we’ve reached a point in our national discourse where Thanksgiving dinner has become an untenable proposition on account of our political differences, it seems necessary to ask how we got here. And I suggest that the way in which we teach writing in our schools has something to do with it.
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