Here’s why I and my composition-teaching colleagues do not let students write arguments about certain topics.
First, let’s remember that I’m talking about first-year students who are learning about argument–about logic, fallacies, good evidence, bad evidence, finding common ground with opponents, refutation, and so on–for the very first time in their lives. The three or four short essays that my students have already written for me are the most writing they have ever done in one semester and perhaps more writing than they did in all of high school. Nearly all of my students enter our community college underprepared for high school, much less first-year college work. Many of these students have never used a library and none of them has used a college library.
In the catalog, the title of the course is Composition I. But it could just as well be called “Basic Introduction to College through Writing.”
I’ll begin with a banned topic that rarely has anything to do with religion: gun control. When I allowed students to write about gun control, those who chose this topic were almost without exception paranoid far-right survivalist/militia fanatics who see New World Order conspiracies everywhere, or the children of such people. It was a self-selecting group: those obsessed with the topic were those who chose to write about it. And to these students, the gun-control argument has two sides: people who love freedom, and people who hate America and want to destroy America and want this to become a land of mindless slaves. A person who wants any sort of gun regulations whatsoever belongs to the second group. A person who’d like to see 30- and 50-round detachable magazine made illegal isn’t merely incorrect; he is an enemy every bit as dangerous as any foreign terrorist.
And to those students, arguments that support regulation of firearms simply don’t exist. Any data used to support arguments for gun regulation are fake–simply made up–or come from some foreign dictatorship where the people are already mindless slaves. It’s not that my no-gun-restrictions students didn’t want to consider other points of view. It’s that they simply denied the legitimacy of those points of view, since the students already knew that such viewpoints are lies concocted by communists or fascists who hate America, and so on and so forth.
My gun-loving students simply couldn’t do real research or construct even part of a proper argument. I think the term is “epistemic closure.” There’s really not an argument to be made when the choices are Good and Absolute Evil, is there? It’s as pointless as explaining why one should prefer Mister Rogers to Hitler. The inevitable poor grade on the assignment merely proved that colleges are controlled by communists or fascists who hate America, and so on and so forth.
The same kind of thing happened when I and my colleagues let students write about abortion, same-sex marriage, or prayer in public schools. With those topics, the self-selecting group consisted of religious fanatics. Please note that I am not saying that all religious people are wild-eyed fire-breathing theocrats. But I live in a part of the country where we have lots and lots of fanatics and more than a few wild-eyed fire-breathing theocrats. Catch John Hagee’s or Rod Parsley’s act on television sometime. To many of my students, that’s what a real Christian looks like. Pope Francis? Not a Christian. Demonic, in fact. I’ve had to shut down such a diatribe this semester.
For the religious fanatics in Comp I, the argument over abortion has two sides: God’s and Satan’s. It ain’t complicated. They don’t write arguments. They write sermons. Other points of view simply do not exist. My students who wrote about abortion always repeated the usual claims: women who have abortions are more likely to get cancer; women who have abortions kill themselves; women who have abortions become sterile. Giving them evidence to the contrary–science-based evidence from good sources–accomplished nothing. The articles are lies; the data are fraudulent; it’s all the work of pagans or atheists who like to kill babies. There is no need to waste time considering the ideas of people who have already proved that they are demonically evil by having such ideas.
Some of our students have been taught to leave a room when ungodly or demonic talk begins. If, say, a beginning-of-class conversation about a science story in the news drifts into mention of evolution or the Big Bang, a student will quietly pack up his or her books and leave, because he or she has been trained to get out of a room when Satan starts talking. It has happened to me and most of my colleagues.
And as with abortion, so with same-sex marriage, prayer in public schools, and other topics with a religious component. The students who write about them will not, can not, consider ideas other than their own because they already know that those other ideas are quite literally lies from Hell. They don’t write arguments. They refuse to. They write bad sermons. And if they get bad grades, they know that the instructor is on Satan’s side.
Again, please note that I am not claiming that all Christians fit a stereotype or caricature. But I live where the stereotypes and caricatures originated. I live where it’s not hard to find ramshackle little churches–old single-wides, as often as not–on back roads, churches that fly the Confederate battle flag next to and sometimes above a cross, and where men go to worship service with their AR-15s slung over their shoulders.
So I proscribe some topics. I try to make students begin arguments and research papers not with an opinion, but with a question about an important topic about which they know little and about which they know that they know very little. Then they need to show me that they have learned to use the college library well enough to find sound evidence that steered them to a point of view on the topic, and that they have examined the evidence for other points of view, and that they can assemble the products of their research into a logical and coherent whole that meets the requirements of the assignment.
It’s easier to accomplish that by proscribing topics that begin and end with Us or Them, Jesus or Satan, Liberty or Slavery. If it’s a topic that sometimes leads to shouting and screaming, pushing and shoving, fisticuffs, or gun play, then maybe it’s a topic that first-year composition students will not handle well.
Then, once a student has constructed a reasonably good written argument, I can say, “See what you did here? This is what grown-up discussion looks like. This–this way of thinking–is how all of should approach everything we think and believe, because everybody believes at least a few things that just aren’t correct. What you did in this assignment is how we can make sure that the things we believe make sense.” And I repeat the old saw: If you never change your mind, what’s the point of having one?
And then, next semester or next year, my composition students can apply their new knowledge in other courses such as sociology and philosophy, and maybe even re-examine some of their own assumptions. My Comp I class, after all, is not the last one in which students will have to make arguments. They’ll have plenty of opportunities to tackle controversies in other courses. My goal is to help them take the very first step in learning how to tackle a controversial topic.