In three of the modules I teach, the students are assessed on their ability to write an argument essay. Done well, this is a beautiful thing. The writer states an opinion, argues for it with logic and evidence, and concludes by stating the opinion again. By the end, the reader is either convinced or provoked into explaining why the writer is wrong. The student gets feedback on how clearly they express themselves and how well they support their arguments — both of which are useful, transferable skills.
Sometimes, the students want to give a balanced account of the issue and hold off on giving an opinion; conclude with something like, “As we can see, there are two sides to this story.” While this is a valid form of writing, it’s not an argument essay, so I can’t let them do that. Sometimes I use the example of a lawyer making a case to explain what an argument is. That usually gets the message across, but I sometimes feel uneasy when I hear myself say this.
Maybe it’s because by using this example, I risk giving the following tacit message:
(1) You are learning to argue persuasively, like a lawyer.
(2) Law is a prestigious field, leading to high-paying jobs.
Therefore, you are learning a prestigous skill that leads to high-paying jobs.
I can almost see old Uncle Plato shaking his head in disappointment. Plato believed that intellectual discussion should be in the pursuit of truth, not persuasion. Talk which merely aims to convince the other party is dismissed by Plato as rhetoric and sophistry. Skilled use of rhetoric allows lawyers to get criminals off the hook and politicians to spin lies into truth. Our noble philosophers, like judges and the electorate, want to see through this fog and establish what is true.
So is a lawyer a good model for a student preparing to enter the academy? Well, not the evil caricature of a lawyer I have presented so far. But any defence lawyer knows that their job is easier when the client is innocent. In a similar way, the writer of an argument essay has an easier job when they are arguing for a true propostion.
Paul Graham wrote an excellent piece on this topic called The Age of the Essay. Graham questions the argument essay as a useful way to establish truth, and if you have any interest in this topic, I would recommend you give him a read. One line stands out for me:
“Good writing should be convincing, certainly, but it should be convincing because you got the right answers, not because you did a good job of arguing.”
Bingo. This is where the beauty in an argument essay lies: when the writer gives you a window to the truth.