Argument, Inquiry, and Learning to Value Evidence

From Library Babel Fish, October 26, 2010

At the risk of e-mail overload, I still find it useful to belong to some old-fashioned email lists that engage different communities in discussion. Sometimes they set up intriguing resonances.

On one of my lists, one populated by writing instructors, discussion recently focused on whether teaching argument was all it was cracked up to be. Shouldn’t we concentrate more on helping students master inquiry? Though being able to understand the academic meaning of the word “argument” and to gain skill in marshaling evidence effectively in writing is important, too often students early in their career as apprentice writers have a hard time escaping the popular notion that argument means persuasion by any means. But then, inquiry is also often misconstrued as a matter of finding sources that will act as a ventriloquist for their preconceived prejudices rather than expecting evidence to lead them to conclusions. (Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to this winner-take-all attitude during a cantankerous election season.)

On another list, one for librarians involved in instruction programs, a parallel issue bubbled up when one member wondered whether librarians found it troubling that a popular database that provides a selection of sources on topics neatly arranged in “pro” and “con” binaries contains articles about global warming that she finds spurious and patently false.

This kind of question usually produces a few predictable responses among librarians.

  • The principled stance: Students need to learn how to make up their own minds, so we need to provide sources that represent a variety of opinion. (This is a fairly fundamental library value: providing multiple perspectives, including unpopular ones, is an important way to support intellectual freedom. This has become less expensive with the Internet providing more perspectives than you can shake a stick at.)
  • The appeasement strategy: Who are we to say what’s true? Librarians must be neutral in all things. Are you suggesting we become censors? (This is, to my mind, a garbled version of the principled stance. Often librarians are urged to avoid suggesting any opinion or belief is false or unsupportable. I find that attitude completely irresponsible in a higher education setting. That said, I will happily provide access to texts that I feel are demonstrably false if they have played a significant role in shaping social issues and public opinion; I happen to think The Bell Curve draws false conclusions based on shoddy evidence, but people should be able to examine it as an influential primary source.)
  • The practical approach: Students have to write argument papers, particularly in their first year composition course. They don’t have time to conduct extensive research, and most of what they might turn up in other databases is way over their heads. This database is exactly what they need.

I’m not sure what the answer to these dilemmas is. I don’t think it’s possible to teach students how to conduct responsible and nuanced inquiry about unfamiliar topics in their first year of college. We can get them started, but it takes a few years to gain enough contextual knowledge and enough familiarity with the ways in which evidence is gathered and presented in various formats to get on handle on it. It’s not that undergraduates can’t do it; they just can’t learn how in one course or one semester.

I like to think these skills and inclination are a major accomplishment of a college education and the library is an important lab or workshop or studio where they can be developed. Yet however we work the arts of inquiry and argument into our courses, I suspect there are more responsible ways to give students practice in understanding and using evidence than resorting to spending our money on canned collections that make life easier for undergraduates but unfortunately end up reinforcing the all-too-popular notion that for every issue there are equal and opposite truths.