Argument Set-Up: examplesPosted: February 8, 2013
As an example of the set up of an argument that we have begun to discuss in class, consider the following example, an Op-Ed from the NY Times by Lawrence Summers. While an Op-Ed has features that differ from essays and academic research (namely, much shorter, with less quotation of text, no citations), we can see that Summers focuses his “opinion” as an argument in setting up a given issue; a problem with that given; his response to that problem.
A PARADOX of American higher education is this: The expectations of leading universities do much to define what secondary schools teach, and much to establish a template for what it means to be an educated man or woman. College campuses are seen as the source for the newest thinking and for the generation of new ideas, as society’s cutting edge.
And the world is changing very rapidly. Think social networking, gay marriage, stem cells or the rise of China. Most companies look nothing like they did 50 years ago. Think General Motors, AT&T or Goldman Sachs.
Yet undergraduate education changes remarkably little over time. My predecessor as Harvard president, Derek Bok, famously compared the difficulty of reforming a curriculum with the difficulty of moving a cemetery. With few exceptions, just as in the middle of the 20th century, students take four courses a term, each meeting for about three hours a week, usually with a teacher standing in front of the room. Students are evaluated on the basis of examination essays handwritten in blue books and relatively short research papers. Instructors are organized into departments, most of which bear the same names they did when the grandparents of today’s students were undergraduates. A vast majority of students still major in one or two disciplines centered on a particular department.
It may be that inertia is appropriate. Part of universities’ function is to keep alive man’s greatest creations, passing them from generation to generation. Certainly anyone urging reform does well to remember that in higher education the United States remains an example to the world, and that American universities compete for foreign students more successfully than almost any other American industry competes for foreign customers.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate: Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different? Here are some guesses and hopes.
Summers provides a useful example for us in the signals he uses to establish his argument: the given is the understanding that the world is changing; and the  problem is the “paradox” that (“and yet”) undergraduate education has changed little; his  argument in response is to “speculate” and “suppose” (recall I suggested a thesis is a sort of “What if? we find in film) that the educational system could/should be different.
You will note that in this example, Summers doesn’t offer a thesis statement ahead of his “guesses and hopes” (the supporting examples or body of his argument). It is, in effect, half of his thesis, guided by his rhetorical question, with the second half of the thesis (his answer to his question) to come at the end. That’s one model for a thesis statement. The model more familiar to you is the one where the last sentence would answer the question, identify the key elements of his argument that will be explored in the body (we see Sven Birkerts doing this in his introduction to The Gutenberg Elegies). Though I invite you to try some alternative approaches to stating your thesis, since there is more than one way to state one, I will be emphasizing the importance of providing a map of your argument to your reader, giving the reader some keywords for your argument, language that will reappear in your body paragraphs and in transition sentences. In this case, given the brevity of an Op-Ed, Summers has more flexibility in not indicating specifically where he’s going. He does, however, clearly tell us what he is responding to–that he is arguing for change.
In other words, a key to establishing the “thesis” (however it may be stated) is to engage the reader’s focus on a problem and response. This example shows us how one does that very basically and simply–even in the pages of the NY Times by the former president of Harvard. In fact, one of my favorite examples of the set up of the problem/conflict needed for an academic argument comes from Summers. I read once that he set up an economics paper that argues against the convention of the “efficient market hypothesis” (the prevailing view that markets are rational because people are rational) with the following two sentences: “There are idiots. Look around.”
Here is another example, a case where the author forwards two contrasting conversations, one as the conventional view, one as the problem, and then proposes the less conventional view as his thesis. It is the introduction to Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
- Argument Set-Up: you got a problem with that? (comppost.wordpress.com)