Reading to Explore and Examine
The term argument evokes images of confrontation. As two people challenge one another over conflicting views, their voices rise, their moods darken, and their minds become fixed upon winning.
―How can you say sexual harassment in the workplace is an overstated problem? Being a male, you’ve never experienced
it. You don’t know what you’re talking about!‖
―Oh, so just because I’m a male, I can’t understand this issue? What an unbelievably sexist thing to say!‖
Of course, this confrontational form of argument can be heard throughout our society, from dorm rooms to courtrooms, from public hearings to legislative debates. The popular television program ―Crossfire‖ is built around exactly such a form of argument as nationally known political analysts spend a half hour attacking one another during prime time. And the 1990s vintage talk shows—from Ricki Lake to the Jerry Springer show—thrive on divisiveness
and confrontation. When people join a confrontational argument, they often close their minds. Their emotions displace their reason as their desire for victory overcomes any inclination to listen to their opposition’s point of view.
In an academic setting, however, argument means more than confrontation. Academic argument implies a
reasoned approach to issues. In an academic community, people also hold opposing viewpoints, but they debate in order to modify and strengthen their positions. Through the deliberative and respectful exchange of viewpoints, each side ―wins‖ by attaining a deeper understanding of the issue. Two history professors, for example, may well view the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki quite differently. Two paleontology professors may debate the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs. Two students may hold differing views regarding the use of capital punishment. However, in academic argument, despite the intensity of the debate, emotion should never replace reason.
Reason dictates that we not only make our own position clear, but that we also do our best to understand opposing positions. After all, the purpose of the college experience is learning, whether that learning comes through classroom discussion, through research, or through the general interaction of members in the academic community. Academic argument is an integral part of that learning process.
“. . . you go to a great school not so much for the knowledge as for arts and habits: for the habit of attention, for the art
of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into
another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent
in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a
given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness.”
1—WILLIAM JOHNSON CORY (1823–1892)
Written over one hundred years ago, William Johnson Cory’s description of the learning process endures. Each
semester, many contemporary social issues wash across a college campus, touching the academic disciplines both directly and indirectly: euthanasia, affirmative action, freedom of speech, genetic engineering, gender equity, global warming, immigration. Although in society at large, sharply focused debates emerge as people establish positions around these issues, in a college setting, students and faculty have the opportunity to step back from the moment and create some emotional distance. The college experience enables us to probe the values and belief systems which underlie issues and ideas. Looking inward and outward, we practice the habit of attention which enables us to make
choices, deliberately and thoughtfully, and to participate in shaping a free society.
Imaginative literature allows us to explore “the art of expression, . . . the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a
new intellectual position, . . . the art of entering into another person’s thoughts.” Anchoring one of humanity’s
fundamental questions—how should I live my life?—in the concrete language of time and place, literature both
personalizes and focuses this question for us. Reading literature, we are transported from the particular details of our individual lives to the lives of other persons, their places, and their times. We emerge from the pages of the literary work with fresh perspectives. As the poet Wallace Stevens noted, ―Imagination is one of the forces of nature.‖ Through literature we may examine with a clear vision both the personal issues that sometimes cloud our daily lives and the social issues that often divide our communities. The literature provided in this textbook is grouped around four themes: Individuality and Community, Nature and Place, Family and Identity, and Power and Responsibility.
“Once upon a time . . .”
Listening to stories as young children, we were not only entertained but also informally instructed in values: honesty, competition, pride, loyalty, compassion, empathy. As readers in a first-year college composition course, we continue to learn from stories about our beliefs and ideas, the value assumptions, which underlie our behavior and attitudes and
inform our opinions and conclusions. Through our reading and our writing about literature, we can step back and explore these value assumptions; we can ferret out underlying beliefs and ideas and scrutinize their logic and reasonableness. To illustrate, we will briefly explore three stories, whose full texts are included in later chapters.
In reading Raymond Carver’s ―Cathedral‖ (Chapter 6), we witness the narrator’s personal growth through his reluctant interaction with his ―wife’s blind friend,‖ Robert. As active readers, we can trace our evolving response to the
narrator. For example, here are some excerpts from early in the story:
My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they
were led by seeing-eye dogs.
At first glance, his [Robert’s] eyes looked like anyone else’s eyes. But if you looked close, there was something
different about them. Too much white in the iris, for one thing, and the pupils seemed to move around in the sockets
without his knowing it or being able to stop it. Creepy.
While the narrator shows himself to be observant, his comments are likely to strike us as simple-minded, crass, and insensitive. By the end of the story, however, the narrator reveals a softer, more serious, and thoughtful side of his character. But careful readers will ask questions: Is the narrator’s transformation
authentic? Has this one night’s encounter changed his outlook? By writing to record our reaction to the narrator at various points in the story, we can draw our individual conclusions about the character of the narrator. Also, we can explore our personal reactions to each of the story’s three characters—the
narrator/husband, the wife, and the wife’s friend Robert—which may reveal something about how we
In writing an informal, reflective response to the story, we may recall our own experiences with individuals who were different from us—in physical or mental abilities, in ethnicity, in economic class, in religious faith—and around
whom we felt uncomfortable. In the act of recalling and writing, we can become readers of our own ―stories‖ and
explore the underlying themes: What assumptions, beliefs, or ideas accounted for our feelings about and actual
reaction in that particular situation? Also, using Carver’s story as a model, we can ―role play‖; we can imagine
ourselves in a situation similar to the narrator’s and write our own script. How would we respond to a visitor who is uncomfortably different from us? Again, from this outward perspective, viewing ourselves as a character in a story, we can explore and examine our range of feelings and reactions: What ideas or beliefs about how a person should act or
look shape our reaction to and interaction with this ―different‖ individual? Finally, as we move beyond ourselves, these underlying questions—how we view ―the other,‖ those who are not ―like us‖— may lead us to a deeper level of scrutiny
of contemporary issues: for example, the scope of the American Disabilities Act, the purpose of affirmative action programs, or the reform of immigration policies.
Tim O’Brien’s short story, ―The Things They Carried‖ (Chapter 6) introduces us, firsthand, to the Vietnam foot soldier, and Louise Erdrich’s story, ―The Red Convertible‖ (Chapter 3), to a recent Vietnam veteran. Reading O’Brien’s story and empathizing with Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his men, we may see today’s middle-aged veterans
as yesterday’s young men with names and girlfriends and families back home, as individuals who are struggling to survive in a hostile environment: ―. . . afraid of dying . . . they were even more afraid to show it. . . . They used a hard
vocabulary to contain the terrible softness. . . . zapped while zipping. . . .‖ Likewise, reading Erdrich’s story, we see
Lyman Lamartine’s brother, Henry, who has recently returned home after serving as a Marine in Vietnam. Here is how
Lyman describes his brother, who spends much of his time watching TV: ―He sat in front of it, watching it, and that was the only time he was completely still. But it was the kind of a stillness you see in a rabbit when it freezes and before it will bolt. . . . his smile had changed, or maybe it was gone.‖
Living with these characters in the pages of O’Brien’s and Erdrich’s stories, we see the actual human faces behind the cliche, ―war is hell.‖ As a result, we may look a bit differently upon the middle-aged man at the street corner with the weathered face, scraggly hair, and ―Veteran, will work for food‖ sign. Perhaps, too, this deliberative reflection will lead us to investigate homeless issues or programs and benefits for veterans in our own communities.
If academic argument implies both understanding opposing positions as well as articulating our own positions, then we must begin with analysis. Thoughtfully and objectively analyzing the views of others, including their underlying assumptions, is a necessary first step in understanding our own beliefs. However, this task is not simple. First, we must understand some of the basic elements of argument.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Rhetoric identifies several elements of argument which will be important
for us. His three appeals, logos, pathos, and ethos (rhetorical triangle), mark three human characteristics: reason,
emotion, and perception of character. Understanding these three elements will give us insights into the positions of others as well as our own. In addition, Aristotle describes a three-part syllogism, consisting of a major premise, a minor
premise, and a conclusion:
Major Premise: College graduates are critical thinkers.
Minor Premise: Michael and Meredith are college graduates.
Conclusion: Michael and Meredith are critical thinkers.
Such a syllogism creates an outline, revealing the logical structure of an argument. Although not all arguments can be so neatly dissected and outlined, our attempts to reduce an argument to its bare elements can help us examine its underlying logic.
To allow more flexibility and openness in examining argument structure, a
twentieth-century British philosopher, Stephen Toulmin, created new terminology to rework the elements of Aristotle’s
syllogism. According to the Toulmin model for argument, the warrant replaces the syllogism’s major premise; the grounds or evidence replaces its minor premise; and the claim replaces its conclusion:
Since dogs are bred for human companionship [the warrant], and schnauzers are dogs [the grounds], schnauzers would
make companionable pets [the claim].
Because this textbook emphasizes reading, writing, and critical thinking rather than advanced logic and rhetoric, we will focus on those elements of argument which will help us examine and articulate positions efficiently: claims, evidence, warrants, and rhetorical appeals.
The claim is the assertion made in an argument, the main point or thesis. We can also think of the claim as the conclusion the writer has drawn. Some claims are easily seen. For example, in the essay, ―Truer to the Game,‖ Randy Horick makes this statement: ―The women play a superior brand of basketball.‖ For readers, there can be no misunderstanding—in fact, every word in Horick’s essay leads readers to accept his claim.
Truer to the Game
Out in our driveway, where my 12-year-old daughter dreams of becoming the next Chamique Holdsclaw, we have been
working together on a few of the finer points of competitive basketball. Like how to use your elbow semi-legally to establish
position (an old Don Meyer bit of wisdom). Or how to inbound the ball to yourself by thunking it off the buttocks of an
unsuspecting opponent. Or the deep personal satisfaction, to say nothing of the psychological advantage, gained from setting a
As part of this regimen, I have tried to use games on TV as teaching tools. I point out, for example, a good blockout on a
rebound, a properly executed pick and roll, or the way to run a two-on-one fast break (or, more often, the way not to run a
Being a quick study, my daughter has observed one of the game’s truths just from viewing two telecasts: the women’s Final
Four games on Friday and the corresponding men’s contests on Saturday evening. ―Dad,‖ she observed, ―the guys can’t shoot.‖
This is either basketball’s deep, dark secret or a cause for excitement, depending on your point of view. The truth is that the
women take better shots than their male counterparts. As their respective NCAA tournaments made it ever clearer this March,
when it comes to putting the pill in the hoop, girls’ basketball rocks. Boys’ basketball, well, doesn’t.
But not only that: The women play a superior brand of basketball. These are not the tilted rantings of some addle-brained
pot-stirrer, as accustomed as you may profess to be to seeing such things on these pages. You can find a whole pantheon of old
NBA stars—including no less of a luminary than Bill Russell his own bad shot-blocking self—who proclaim that women’s
basketball is much truer to the game they played than the men’s version today.
Claims of superiority, of course, all depend upon your definitions. If you measure quality by physical measures—speed, play
above the rim, dazzling one-on-one moves—it’s still a man’s world. (Don’t imagine, however, that the women in the Final
Four aren’t superbly conditioned athletes.)
If you’re looking for solid fundamentals and all-around team play, well, um, fellas, y’all got next. Ironically, the relative
physical inferiority of today’s women players provides the basis for a superior game.
The ability of men to complete acrobatic, soaring drives and dunks increasingly has led them to become infatuated with ―taking it to the tin‖— regardless of which defenders are in the way or which teammates may be open elsewhere. It’s as if the guys have all graduated from some funky basketball camp that teaches that style points count for even more than real ones. If you had $250 for every time during the men’s NCAAs that a player passed up a jump shot, faked with the ball, then put his head down and headed toward the hole, they’d make you an honorary member of the bar association. The predictable results of such reckless driving, all too often, are offensive fouls, ugly collisions, and loads of bricks. For every dunk, we are forced to
witness several thunks. For every electrifying play, there are several short-circuits. The literal rise of countless would-be Jordans has corresponded with a steady fall in field goal and free throw percentages in the men’s game.
Contrast that with the women’s game, where the play is decidedly below the rim and dunks are rarer than incorruptible state legislators.
Because the girls aren’t yet throwing it down, they’re forced to concentrate on the aspects of the game that many of the boys seem to regard as beneath them. Like practicing free throws. Running patterned offenses. Looking for back-door cutters. Making routine shots. Executing the fundamentals.
For all of these reasons, if you want to teach someone to play the game, women’s basketball today is far more instructive. In
part, that’s because their game runs at a slightly slower speed, allowing you more clearly to see plays develop. Much more, however, it has to do with better shot selection, better ball movement, and more faithful adherence to the concept of team play.
Off the court, of course, women’s college basketball looks even better in comparison. At the Division I Level, men’s hoops today less and less exemplifies the old ideals of amateur competition and more and more resembles a corporate leviathan. In the way that drug cartels have corrupted the institutions in countries like Columbia and Mexico, those who control the money and labor supply have leeched into men’s basketball. AAU coaches serve as talent brokers who wield inordinate influence. Shoe companies sponsor posh summer camps for top high school players and sign college coaches to cushy contracts, hoping to win future endorsements from those who become stars.
Meanwhile, the pressures to win are so enormous upon coaches, and the financial allure of an NBA career so powerful to players, that almost any action can be rationalized in the name of winning. Top high school players with marginal grades may be shipped off to basketball trade schools that pass themselves off as institutions of academic learning. Collegiate coaches recruit the nation’s elite players knowing all too well that they will be gone within a year or two, and that their only real interest in the college experience lies in gaining experience that will prepare them for the pros. Things are so whomperdejawed that the NCAA, which blithely presided over the creation of this mess, is now declaring that the entire culture of men’s basketball is diseased and needs a radical cure. (Good luck, guys.)
Against this backdrop, the women’s game looks like a fount of purity. Star players don’t bug out early for the professional
league; they stay and earn their degrees.
Coaches don’t have to hire bodyguards to protect their athletes from contact by predatory agents. The recruiting process does
not begin in the eighth or ninth grades. There are no televised McDonald’s all-American games or dunk contests that teach the
best players that they belong to some sort of celebrity elite.
Those days may be coming. As the popularity of women’s basketball continues to increase (Sunday’s championship between
Tennessee and Connecticut was the most watched women’s game ever), so too will the pressures.
The retirement last week of Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore is a reminder of where the game is going. Tech and Old
Dominion are perhaps the last of the ―little‖ schools that remain powers in women’s basketball today. It’s easy to forget that,
barely two decades ago, the game was dominated by colleges you never heard of: Delta State, Immaculata, Stephen F. Austin,
Women’s basketball belongs to the big schools now. With the WNBA successfully established, it is conceivable that
collegians might turn pro early if salaries become attractive enough. Coaches might cut corners and grease palms to lure the
best high schoolers to their programs. A whole industry might rise up and enshroud the game, as it has with men’s basketball.
Until then, though, I’ll keep offering up as role models the kind of unspoiled, we-first players who were evident in the
Meanwhile, we won’t forget at our house that the men’s pro league still offers enormous entertainment value. Just last
Sunday, during the Knicks-Lakers game, my daughter came rushing in breathlessly. ―Dad, dad, come check it out. Kobe Bryant
and Chris Childs are having a fight!‖
On the other hand, a claim can be implied or indirect rather than explicit or directly stated, particularly in imaginative literature. Do you recall reading The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne? Like many high school
students, you probably encountered this novel sometime during your four years, but can you state the claim Hawthorne makes? Something about deception perhaps? Maybe something about values? Readers are not likely to find a single sentence in Hawthorne’s novel equivalent to Horick’s assertion regarding women’s basketball. However, in a classroom discussion, through the interplay of varying interpretations, readers can articulate a central claim or assertion for this novel.
Of course, some imaginative literature offers no claim whatsoever. Look, for example, at a short poem by Kenneth Rexroth:
Cold before Dawn
Cold before dawn,
Off in the misty night,
Under the gibbous moon,
The peacocks cry to each other,
As if in pain.
Do you see an implicit claim in this poem? If you do, you are probably reading too much into this five-
line, imagist poem. As a further example, look at this Ezra Pound poem:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd,
Petals on a wet, black bough.
You will discover no claim here, no matter how proficiently you analyze this poem. But look at the
following poem by the eighteenth-century British poet William Blake:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man, 5
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls; 10
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born Infant’s tear, 15
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
What do you see as the claim in this poem? Is the claim about the young children used as chimney sweeps and doomed to early deaths? Is it about venereal disease? Yes, the poem says something about both of these subjects; indeed, a number of subclaims usually can be identified in any example of writing. In this poem, however, Blake indirectly accuses the religious, military, and legal institutions of being responsible for the human suffering endured by so many people in the late 1700s. No single line makes such a claim, but when you reread the poem, you will see that the indictment is certainly the poem’s central focus, the conclusion the writer wishes the reader to draw from this evidence.
Argument theorists identify several types of claims, including a claim of fact, a claim of policy, and a claim of value. If you
state that the world loses ten acres of rainforest every minute, then you are making a claim of fact, which may be useful as
evidence in an argument calling for new environmental laws to protect the rainforest. The call for new laws would be a
claim of policy because it asks for a specific action to take place. If the argument makes a judgment labeling something
good or bad, then you have a claim of value: Rainforests are an invaluable and irreplaceable natural resource.
Evidence is the body of information used to support claims. This information may be based on subjective personal experience, on objective facts, on the authority of an expert. Toulmin calls this information the grounds for the claims. There are various types of evidence, but for our purposes, let’s concentrate on three: personal experience, reports, and authority.
In an essay, a student claims euthanasia should be legalized and cites his experience of watching his grandmother suffer a prolonged and painful death as the result of cancer. The student’s choice of descriptive details coupled with his sincere tone creates a strong, emotional response in his readers. His use of personal experience provides strong
evidence for the validity of his argument, particularly among readers who have had similar experiences.
On the other hand, some readers may not have any experience with cancer and may never have experienced the death of a family member or loved one. For these people, despite the obvious emotional pull of the evidence, further proof will be required. In this case, the writer might want to provide some statistics of the numbers of patients on life-support in this country, as well as the costs to families and health care providers. Taking this approach, the writer is using reports, objective facts gathered from outside sources, to support his argument.