DeStigter, Todd. “On the Ascendance of Argument: A Critique of the Assumptions of Academe’s Dominant Form.” Research in the Teaching of English 50.1 (2015): 11-34. Print.
Todd DeStigter raises concerns about the predominant focus on argumentative writing in college and increasingly in high school, as the authors of the Common Core State Standards join composition scholars in declaring argumentation an essential skill.
DeStigter’s response to the emphasis on argument grew out of his experiences at a high school in a Mexican/Mexican-American area in Chicago. An English teacher/assistant principal there enlisted DeStigter’s help in an initiative to require all students to take AP English and Composition; in the teacher’s view, this curriculum revision would address the inequity faced by students who historically had not had adequate preparation for college. DeStigter’s involvement developed into “three semesters of ethnographic research,” including observations and tutoring in two AP classes (12).
DeStigter recounts that the high school’s effort to better prepare the students for college and careers reflected national trends in emphasizing argumentative writing. He quotes the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, authors of the Common Core State Standards, as they urge attention to “students’ ability to write sound arguments on substantive topics and issues” (qtd. in DeStigter 12). Research by James Warren supports DeStigter’s claim that argument is becoming “the dominant mode” in both high school and college (qtd. in DeStigter 12). DeStigter argues for a shift from asking how to teach argument more effectively to asking why argument is given such prominence and what follows from this emphasis (13).
Although agreeing that compositionists recognize the diverse forms argument can take, that argumentative writing is not per se “harmful,” and that no “either/or choice” is called for (13; emphasis original), he reports detecting three assumptions about such writing: that it “promotes clear and critical thinking,” that it develops skill in the “rational deliberation . . . essential for a democratic citizenry,” and that it provides “a form of cultural capital that facilitates [students’] upward academic and socioeconomic mobility” (13). Though noting the “irony” that he is using the conventions of argument to challenge the “overemphasis on argumentative writing” (31n3), he critiques these assumptions.
In his view, the idea that reasoned argument reflects the clearest thinking derives from Descartes and Kant and their contentions that it is possible to arrive at knowable truth outside of context and contingency via evidence and logical connections. DeStigter links this belief in the efficacy of formally structured argument to lead to best decisions to the “coherence theory of truth,” which valorizes discourse that meets agreed-upon standards of self-consistency and integration, and to the “correspondence theory of truth,” in which a well-formed discursive product is assumed to mirror an autonomous entity out in the world. DeStigter argues that decisions as to what counts as reason and effective structure are themselves discursive products, Foucauldian “regimes of truth” (18) created and valorized by people “who are in a position to make and enforce such designations” (19).
He again cites Kant as a source for the view that “rational deliberation” is the ideal process to further democracy. He reviews philosophers and critics like Hannah Arendt, John Rawls, and Jurgen Habermas (22) who posit that a society in which individual interests can be bracketed and all stakeholders can participate as equals results in the “egalitarian reciprocity” necessary for democracy (Seyla Benhabib, qtd. in DeStigter 22). DeStigter responds that people do not have equal access to the public sphere and that even “overwhelming evidence” routinely surrenders to the “values and prejudices” through which people filter claims (22).
Moreover, DeStigter maintains, true change seldom follows from deliberative discussions but from activism and solidarity. He introduces the concept of “democracy’s edges“ proposed by Ian Shapiro and Casiano Hacker-Cordón (23): This concept attempts to identify those forced to the margins of the democratic process, but for DeStigter, it also refers to what kinds of action and speech get defined out of the process. He gives examples of actions that approach “a line” that, if rational deliberation is the standard, renders them “irrational, and therefore illegitimate,” like refusing to move to the back of the bus or occupying government buildings. “[M]ore agonistic or even revolutionary models” of interaction, he contends, may be necessary to bring about changes that will truly foster democracy.
Finally, he challenges the contention that learning to write arguments will promote students’ social mobility. He details two students at the high school who, although excellent argumentative writers, find college costs daunting and the job market unresponsive (25). These examples and others illustrate DeStigter’s resistance to the long-lived idea that more and better education will spur a stronger economy (25-26). While acknowledging that individual students may escape poverty through education, he argues that for most students like those he studied, “being prepared for higher education is not the same as having a realistic opportunity to attend college” (26). But even if cost were no issue, he maintains, the possibility that a college education will provide the “cultural capital” necessary for socioeconomic mobility is based on “educators’ widespread misappropriation” of the work of Pierre Bourdieu (26).
According to DeStigter, Bourdieu recognized three kinds of “capital”: cultural (knowing how to behave), social (having access to opportunities for advancement), and economic (having money) (26-27). Central to DeStigter’s critique is Bourdieu’s clear assertion that “economic capital is at the root of all other types of capital” (qtd. in DeStigter 27), and thus that possession of economic capital determines people’s ability to acquire the other kinds. In contrast to the idea that providing students with literacy will open the door to the “culture of power” (Lisa Delpit, qtd. in DeStigter 28), DeStigter cites Bourdieu’s claim that hope for a more egalitarian society depends on subverting dominant power structures rather than emulating them (28).
Accepting the view that schools can influence “systemic” economic dysfunction, DeStigter contends, feeds a tendency to “blame schools” during downturns and invites privatization (29). Further, assigning such power to education encourages the meritocratic view that economic hardship results from a lack of individual intelligence or effort in school (29).
Finally, DeStigter concludes that
the ascendance of argument limits our understandings of who we humans are and what we are capable of because it attends to only a tiny part of the communicative spectrum we occupy. . . . [W]e writing teachers must safeguard opportunities in our curricula and pedagogy to gather ourselves and our students into conversations in which we seek not just to scrutinize, critique, and refute, but to share and be receptively present with others. (30-31)