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In Chapters 2 and 3, we have analyzed and summarized arguments but restrained ourselves from offering our own opinions. When reading through an argument, we naturally ask ourselves whether we agree or disagree as we go. We may be writing exclamation marks or expressions of outrage in the margins, or we may be feeling uneasy because we are not sure yet what we think. Either way, we are probably impatient to find our own voice. When do we get to weigh in? Once our readers understand the original text and trust that we understand it, they are in our hands, ready to listen to our assessment. Our critique will be clearer since we have spent time thinking about the foundations of the argument and the author’s purpose and meaning. The work we have done puts us in the best position to add something of our own to the conversation.
Most college essay assignments do ask us to critically evaluate arguments, not just summarize them. To give a taste of what these kinds of assignments look like and how common they are, let’s turn to courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a highly regarded university specializing in engineering, science, mathematics, and technology. We might not expect MIT to emphasize writing skills, but the assignments in its publicly available “Open Courseware” frequently ask students to critically evaluate arguments. Here are four examples:
- A prompt from the MIT course “American History Since 1865,” taught by professor Caley Horan, reads as follows:
The historian Eric Foner argues that Reconstruction should be understood as an "unfinished revolution." In what ways, if any, were the American Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed revolutionary, and for whom? What was left "unfinished" by Reconstruction? Essays should present an original argument that responds to the above prompt. This argument should be unique (of your own making) and should reflect careful and serious engagement with course materials.
- In the economics course “The Challenge of World Poverty” at MIT, students are asked to write an essay on the following topic:
Despite being quite poor, China currently has a savings rate that is much higher than most other countries in the world. An article by Shang-Jin Wei in VoxEU proposes one interesting reason why Chinese households tend to save so much. Do you find the article's evidence plausible? What other factors may explain why initially poor East Asian countries have saved at very high rates over the past sixty years?
- A third prompt comes from the MIT course “Globalization: the Good, the Bad, and the In-Between”:
In his introduction to The Ornament of the World, Harold Bloom says: “...Our current multiculturalism, the blight of our universities and of our media, is a parody of the culture of Cordoba and Granada in their lost prime." What does Bloom mean? Is multiculturalism today different from the tolerance exhibited by the societies of Al-Andalus? Do you agree with him? Either for or against Bloom's position.
- Finally, an experimental biology class demands the following:
Write a brief critique (2-3 pp.) of Arbuckle, Melissa R., et al. "Development of Autoantibodies before the Clinical Onset of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus" from The New England Journal of Medicine, focusing on the illustrations.
All four of these essay prompts direct the student to focus deeply on one argument and explain it. Then the student must express an original critical response. This is in some ways similar to a movie review: a reviewer has to give some picture of what the movie is like before praising or panning it. We might not think of history, economics, and biology courses as all calling on one skill, but the student who has practice summarizing arguments and critiquing them can likely do well on all of the above assignments.
So how do we get started? In this chapter, we will discuss how to return to the structure of the argument map to search for any faults. We will look at problems with the clarity of the claims, the solidity of the reasons, and the validity of the assumptions. In the next chapter, we will talk about the options for making recommendations in response to any problems we find.