A History of Argument: Teaching Students Critical Analysis

By Andrew Struan

Writing in 1808 when in office as President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson told his grandson: ‘I never yet saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing the other by argument’. Continuing this line of thought in his letter, Jefferson explained that his fellow Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, was ‘the most amiable of men in society’ because he never contradicted any others: ‘he did it rather by asking questions, as if for information, or by suggesting doubts’.

Understanding the finer details of argumentation or rhetoric is not new – it has been a topic of discussion since antiquity to the modern day – and yet it is continually one of the most difficult elements of critical thinking to teach students. The process of trying to instil within our students the ability to think critically and understand the mechanics of argumentation is one of the central features of the study of history as a subject. We look to equip our students with the abilities of evaluation and analysis, and we do that through investigation of the past.

My role at the University of Glasgow is to teach our students how to analyse, critique, research, and investigate, and then how to craft arguments befitting academic discussion and investigation. My research is on the history of political speech and ideas in the early modern period, and I’m particularly interested in the ways in which Anglophone politicians frame their language around concepts to develop and deploy their arguments.

Combining these two elements – my role and my research – into one course was a challenge that I relished. The resulting course – A History of Argumentation – is designed around two essential criteria: firstly, that the processes, mechanics, structures, and methods of argumentation must be made explicit, and clearly defined to students; and, secondly, that the historian’s focus on analysis of, and engagement with, primary sources must be the means of testing students’ skills in understanding arguments.

The course itself was developed during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in the UK. The course was designed for first- and second-year undergraduates to continue to engage them with academic debate and discussion at the peak of lockdown, and to maintain student engagement with their wider academic development. I designed the course in collaboration with a Graduate Teaching Assistant and PhD student in the history of disease, Monica O’Brien, and we took about the process of building a broad course that would be relevant to any student – not just history students – in the broad subjects of arts, humanities, education, and social sciences.

The course was structured as follows:

  • An introductory class that covered Classical rhetoric (by looking at Aristotle’s On Rhetoric) and modern argumentation (by looking at Stephen Toulmin’s model of argument).
  • A second class looking at an early eighteenth-century text, Wholesome Advice Against the Abuse of Hot Liquors (1706), by renowned Franco-Scottish physician Daniel Duncan against the abuse of coffee and tea,
  • A third class investigating the American Declaration of Independence in 1776
  • A fourth class that looked at The Second Sex (1949) by Simone de Beauvoir
  • A fifth class discussing the Indians of All Tribes Proclamation of Alcatraz (1969)
  • A final class where students were able to bring all the themes, topics, and debates from the previous classes to the present day through an analysis of modern presidential rhetoric and Trumpian political speech.
Figure 1. Raphael, ‘The School of Athens’ (1509-11). Available under CC.

Each class was structured around a range of pre-class materials, resources, and short recordings. The class itself – always held on Zoom – was then an hour-long discussion of the topic at hand. Students from subject areas as broad as law, Scottish literature, sociology, and film and theatre studies all brought their interpretations of the sources to the class.

What had initially started as a course designed to encourage students to engage with argument in an explicit manner turned into a course that looked at the arguments of rights, liberties, and freedoms in the early modern- and modern-period. Students took to heart the importance of rhetorical structures in understanding how sources are structured and organised, and began a process of critiquing ideas through those frameworks.

A separate, student-led reading group around the history of argumentation was set up and continues to provide interested students with a forum for discussion around the role of argumentation in understanding key texts and key themes. Students in particular engaged with the Proclamation at Alcatraz – in a large part because none of them had come across the text before and found it fascinating – and with The Second Sex. Our discussions were lively debates around the concepts of liberty, freedom, and equality – and all within a broader framework of clarity of argument and expression in arguing around these topics.

In a subsequent iteration of the course, I added an additional text: Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism (1932). I wanted to forcibly challenge students to consider an argument which did not, at the time, ‘win’. In other words, I wanted students to be presented with an argument that was presented at the time on par with our other texts, but which ultimately did not dominate the political and social rhetoric after the 1940s.

Students found this an obvious challenge and asked questions of how to approach the text: ‘Can we highlight the text’s strengths?’; ‘Should we look for the ways in which the claims were proven?’; ‘Is there a way to critique this that isn’t giving it undue credit?’. Again, here, the focus on argumentation was crucial: we used the tools, structures, and methods developed in earlier classes to investigate this difficult text and to place it within a wider context. At the end of the course, over 40% of the students chose to write their essays on the Doctrine and how the ideals therein were realised in practice.

The course itself, then, adopted no particularly radical concepts in the teaching of history or of rhetoric. Instead, the course aimed to give students a range of specific structures through which to analyse the past (and present). These structures allowed students unfamiliar with many of the sources and the contemporary issues surrounding them to engage in meaningful debate and discussion. Beyond that, the course aimed to allow students to see the ways in which arguments are constructed and to then deconstruct the strengths/weaknesses within. In so doing, the students were able to see some of the mysteries of rhetorical debate, argumentation, and analysis.

John Trumbull, ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1818). Available under CC.

In a modern world where fake news dominates and the humanities come under attack from governments, giving students the tools to defend their arguments against criticism, to deploy evidence and argument, and to understand the role of the study of history is crucial to the continuation of our subject and its unique pedagogical approaches.

The course now runs for pre-entry first year students as an optional module and for current undergraduate and postgraduate taught students across the University of Glasgow.

Andrew Struan is a historian of Anglophone political language. Mixing historical and linguistic approaches to the study of the past, Andrew’s research looks at the ways in which Anglophone politicians frame concepts and ideas. Andrew works at the University of Glasgow as a senior Learning Developer; his role here involves teaching students how to conduct research, how to build rhetorical structures, and how to communicate research to multidisciplinary audiences.

Twitter: @andrewstruan

University website: https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/leads/staff/andrewstruan/

Cover Image, Donald Trump speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (2018), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_(39630854045).jpg.

Figure 1, Raphael, ‘The School of Athens’ (1509-11), https://www.artyfactory.com/art_appreciation/art_movements/italian-renaissance/italian-renaissance/school-of-athens.jpg.

Figure 2, John Trumbull, ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1818), https://blog.nyhistory.org/john-trumbull-painter-of-the-revolution/.

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