What’s an Argument?

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

In reviewing some recent e-mails from family members, I was dismayed to see that the content of their “forwards” consisted of name-calling, ridicule and distortions of the truth.  These forwards were circulating primarily within the family and were intended to deride those who held an opposing viewpoint.  But, where was the “argument?”

By “argument” I do not mean stating “You’re wrong.  I’m right.”  An argument presents your claim (whatever that might be, e.g. “The best cars are _______”) and requires you to support that claim with good evidence.  Arguments are wonderful byproducts of critical thinking.  And, once again, the value of higher education becomes apparent because critical thinking is built in to many college courses, especially Liberal Arts/General Education courses.  A consistent thread that has run through these blog articles is the need for critical thinking.  While some critical thinking may be gained through life’s experiences, there is no substitute for being exposed to ideas and values that differ from your own.  Understanding different perspectives helps you to build a solid argument that is based on facts and logic, not name-calling and finger-pointing.  In today’s world of inflammatory politics, knowing how to think critically and construct a good argument are the tools you need to get through all of the emotion and to the heart of the debate.

These skills are honed in the classroom.  While my students may have definite opinions about certain topics at the beginning of the term, they are required to provide evidence for their argument as the term progresses.  In some cases, they change their minds about previously held beliefs.  This is good, too.  I remember a statement from a “Thought for the Day” calendar.  It said:  “If I change my mind today, it means that I am smarter than I was yesterday.”

These blogs have presented a series of arguments on the benefits of returning to school.  In some cases, counter-arguments need to be addressed, such as overcoming fears or obstacles.  In others cases, a counter-argument may be just plain resistance, as in “I can’t” or “I don’t want to.”  Consider your argument.  Is there good evidence to support your claim?  Have I presented good evidence to support my claim?  Weigh the evidence.  If you are still undecided, that’s not a bad place to be, for that means that you ARE considering the facts and are not jumping to conclusions based upon previously held beliefs.  Sometimes writing down the “pros and cons” about an issue can help.  Whatever you do, allow yourself the mental room to explore the arguments – and follow the evidence!

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