Often, when reading student papers, I’ll come across a statement that reads something like “the capitalist system is really the greatest economic system. Other systems eventually collapse because of the lack of competition,” and then breezes on, without pausing to address the underlying assumptions of the argument or even acknowledging that there are assumptions.
When asked, student writers often become defensive, even going so far as to say, “I didn’t address the assumptions because it’s a given. Capitalism encourages competition, which is good. Everyone knows that.” Does everyone really know that? Possibly—maybe indeed all the leaders and citizens of various communist states really know how great capitalism is but are just not saying, for a variety of reasons. Does this exempt the student from addressing the assumptions and making the argument? It does not. But convincing the student of that may be an argument in itself.
Getting Students to Make their Argument
Unpack the Argument
For example, the statement “The capitalist system is the best because it encourages competition” is based on several assumptions:
- Capitalist systems are competitive.
- Other systems are not competitive.
- Competition creates the best economic system.
To be addressed, the assumptions have to be made explicit—that is, they have to be “smoked out.” To do this, the instructor can write the claim on the board and discuss what the author seems to be assuming the audience already knows and agrees with. Once the assumptions are written out, discuss whether it’s fair to assume the reader really shares these beliefs to the extent they don’t need to be discussed or if anyone might reasonably disagree. Students will usually begin seeing the point here, that assumptions do have to be addressed and supported. However, they may still be uncomfortable with the process as it seems like some things like “America is a great country” are just a given and shouldn’t be questioned.
Acknowledge the Discomfort
When my student told me that it was “a given” that capitalism is the best system and really did not need to be addressed, I think what he was really saying was it is almost a matter of faith that should not be questioned. Capitalism, like the existence of God and the ultimate good of the nation, are sacred icons in U.S. culture: questioning them can seem almost sacrilegious. And while I can agree that questioning the support for God’s existence is not the task of the writing classroom, we can certainly question the good of the capitalist system and demand support for its value when writing about it—at the same time acknowledging students’ discomfort with this process. After all, no one said gaining an education would always be a comfortable or easy matter. And the reader may in the end agree with the author, that capitalism is indeed the best system. However, the writer is not excused from making the argument and must still go through the process of examining the value of the claim.
Support the Argument
Once students have unpacked their claims of underlying assumptions, they’ll realize the assumptions—and the claims themselves—need to be supported, once they are exposed, written on the board in bare, simple statements: “Competition is good.” Discuss the kind of support that is needed to support claims like this. This leads to a discussion of what is appropriate support and what a valid and reliable source is: quotes from students’ parents and their own personal experiences usually being less valid than research on the topic or opinions of experts.
Develop the Habit of Critical Examination
From their own writing, this process of examining arguments extends into other areas. In going over course reading with students, ask them about the author’s claims: What is her major argument in the reading? Does she support it well enough? What are its underlying assumptions? Have students progress to the critical examination of each other’s work, noting the assumptions and need for support in their peers’ work. In this process, students will lose the habit of accepting claims on faith and begin critically examining them. In this way their thinking skills will develop along with their writing skills.
Develop the Habit of Civil Disagreement
Many people bemoan the disappearance of civility from American culture. A large part of this is our unfortunate inability to politely disagree on matters of any importance anymore: we either shout or clam up. We seem to be unable in many situations to “use our words,” as mothers urge their toddlers to do when upset (rather than fists). It is the teacher’s job to teach students how to use words to politely disagree: “Excuse me, but I don’t see that you’ve supported that claim” or “I am going to have to disagree with that point and for this reason” are acceptable and even welcome methods to counter an argument.
Part of the process of critical thought is the habit of questioning. Have students take a statement that they accept as true—it can be as simple as “The sky is blue” to the more complicated “Capitalism is great”--and examine it. “Is that really true? How do I know that? Are there any times when it is not true?” With this process students lose the habit of accepting statements on blind faith just because they are posed as affirmative statements or they are in writing, which many people tend to do.
Critically examining arguments and questioning “givens” is a difficult process because it seems “natural” to many people to accept written statements as a “given.”
However, this process is a microcosm of college study itself and develops students’ critical thinking and writing skills, getting them into a lifelong habit of not accepting such “givens” as truly given but rather looking at the assumptions beneath.
Does your students’ writing seem to “assume” a lot? What are some methods you have dealt with the problem?