Every semester, I assign a research paper in which students must select a current, controversial topic, research it, arrive at some sort of opinion about the issue, and write a persuasive essay that expresses their stance and attempts to, if not convince a reader to agree with their point of view, at least acknowledge that their point of view is valid and worthy of consideration.
Students often immediately select a topic with which they are somewhat familiar and already have some sort of relatively firm stance. I encourage them to explore the topic - in fact, that's part of the essay requirements – to research multiple perspectives and acknowledge the opposition, and concede the valid counter-arguments to their own stance. Sometimes, students start off with a particular stance and in the process of research, change their point of view. The process of intellectual inquiry and discovery can be an exciting one – something I thrill to witness.
But the assignment has a serious pitfall for me. And that pitfall is the kind of arguments students craft about gay marriage and abortion.
One semester, I had a student whose paper was in support of gay marriage and his main argument was this: Because the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) considers homosexuality a disease, and we do not prohibit people with diseases from marrying, we should not prohibit gays from marrying either, as then we will be discriminating against the disabled.
Sigh. I conferenced with the student and explained that the “fact” he cited was outdated – current scientific and medical research concludes that homosexuality is not a “disease.” The DSM was revised years ago in light of this research. As the student was relying on old and irrelevant data (when recent data was available), I explicitly directed him to continue his research. I also mentioned that the argument he was using to support gay marriage was an argument that would alienate and insult the very group of people he wished to support.
He did not listen. He did not heed my advice, and turned in a paper that although technically adequate was seriously lacking in thorough, academic research and logical, critical thinking.
Other students have turned in essays which argue the case against gay marriage or abortion based on faith alone. And faith-based arguments are not acceptable in an academic environment; nor, in my opinion, are they acceptable n our political system either.
Of course, I also receive essays in which students advocate for gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. And I scrutinize the students' arguments on those essays as well. They must support their points, their arguments, with solid evidence and rational thought. Many do not, nor do they always acknowledge the valid counterpoints of their opposition. And I call that to their attention.
But invariably, the essays which argue against gay marriage or abortion are usually either faith-based or demonstrate seriously flawed critical thinking and argumentative skills – gaping holes in the argument, or a lack of acknowledging (and understanding) an alternative perspective on the issue.
I try to grade objectively, wisely. I conference. I tread lightly on students’ religious beliefs while still trying to hold them to the academic standards of reasoned, intellectual inquiry and debate.
And I typically fail. And students become frustrated. Because I am asking them to examine their beliefs under a microscope and critique them; because I am asking them to consider what is to them an alien point of view. And because though I am not necessarily asking them to change their stance, I am asking them to change how they support that stance. And I do ask them to reconsider how they think and how they feel.
I ask my students to engage in this task because this is what intelligent, educated, rational, critically-thinking beings do. Analyze. Critique. Reassess. Examine. Not just the “facts” of the issue, but the assumptions underlying our opinions and those of others. It is a most disturbing practice – one that, if pursued with discipline, can shake our convictions and deliver us to a new understanding, or lead us to a new insight that further reinforces our previous beliefs and makes us better able to arugue our points in thoughtful, rational, and persuasive manner.
And all of that is an extraordinarily difficult and uncomfortable task for any human being. And yet, our intelligence demands that we do it.
But this semester, I banned all gay issues and abortion as topics for the research/persuasive essay. Because right now, I cannot tolerate reading essays which vilify so many of my loved ones, or which declare that women who have abortions (of which I am one) are habitiualy careless and thoughtless, or severely psychologically disturbed.
Though I am relieved not to have read such essays this spring, I am troubled that by banning these topics, I am denying my students a learning opportunity; denying them discussion, conversation, debate. Denying them a chance to re-vision their thinking, to explore ideas, to arrive at new conclusions.
But right now, this semester, I am not wise enough, noble enough, caring enough
to allow for that opportunity. I simply no longer wish to read essays that so assault my sensibilities and cause me anguish.
And in that regard, I am no better than any student of mine who argues solely from a faith-based perspective and refuses to see, or acknowledge, an alternative point of view.
And yet, for this semester, I can live with that.