Above all, college is about making arguments. Whatever the field of study, or specific course, college students read and assimilate text, media, data, or problems, and they build arguments – in papers, projects, reports. In college, students learn to think critically, independently, creatively – through the underlying and unifying academic modality of argumentation. If we are serious about college access for all, we have to be much more serious about building the capacity of K – 12 educators to teach students to make strong arguments about the content they are learning.
In 2009 the American College Test (ACT) survey of English writing and literature professors found that ‘argumentative writing’ and ‘writing to convey information’ were the two most highly valued skills in incoming college students. The survey identified these argument-based skills as most essential to success in college:
- Take and maintain a position on an issue
- Support claims with multiple sources of evidence
- Develop ideas by using specific reasons and examples
In that same year, the Council of Chief State School Officers, in its College and Career Ready: Standards for Reading, Writing, and Communication, concurred:
The ability to frame and defend an argument is particularly important to students’ readiness for college and careers. The goal of making an argument is to convince an audience of the rightness of the claims being made using logical reasoning and relevant evidence. In some cases, a student will make an argument to gain access to college or to a job, laying out their qualifications or experience. In college, a student might defend an interpretation of a work of literature or of history and, in the workplace, an employee might write to recommend a course of action. Students must frame the debate over a claim, presenting the evidence for the argument and acknowledging and addressing its limitations. This approach allows readers to test the veracity of the claims being made and the reasoning being offered in their defense.
The highly regarded University of Chicago Writing Program articulates for its students the importance of argument in college this way. Argumentation is ‘an integral part of your education in college. . . . because in just about any profession you pursue, you will do research, think about what you find, make decisions about complex matters, and then explain those decisions – usually in writing – to others who have a stake in your decisions being sound ones. In an Age of information what most professionals do is research, think, and make arguments.’ Neil Postman of Columbia University Teachers College called argument ‘the soul of an education.’ Gerald Graff of the University of Illinois at Chicago and 2008 president of the Modern Language Association has called college ‘an argument culture’ and therefore ‘argument literacy’ is the core of authentic college readiness.