Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been teaching arguing, or persuasive, essays in my freshmen composition courses. I save this format, along with evaluating essays, for last because in some sense they utilize all the skills that the students have picked up through the practice of writing, remembering, observing, and explaining essays in the previous weeks and months.
That’s one reason why I save these types for last, and it’s the better reason. The other reason is that I know from experience that it’s hard to keep everybody’s attention – the students’ and my own – focused in the waning weeks of a semester, particularly a spring semester when the weather is warming and summer vacation is on the horizon, and arguing and evaluating essays are my, and often my students’, favorite types to read and write.
I assign several readings for each essay form, chosen because they are prime examples of the particular type and though they often change, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” has a permanent home in the arguing section of my syllabus. For those readers who have not sat through a semester of class with me (or any countless other composition courses that utilize King’s classic text): it is an epistle written while King was in the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama after being arrested for taking part in non-violent protests there. The letter is a response to “A Call For Unity,” a statement published by eight white Alabama clergymen in which they conceded that injustices were taking place, but that protest, even non-violent, was not appropriate and that proper, legal means should be pursued.
King states his case in no less than nine points (he even apologizes at the end for writing so much and makes reference to the fact that there’s not much else to do when one is in prison). There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the greatest arguing essays ever written, offering some of the most airtight arguments ever made. The now famous line, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” appears in this text.
What I have never known about this essay, and still to this day cannot say for certain, is what effect this text had first on its intended audience, the signatories of “A Call for Unity.” I know that every time I read it I get chills and that most of my students come to venerate it, but as far as I can tell from my admittedly very limited research on the topic (Google “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and, most unfortunately, over 95% of the results are for free term papers on the essay) there is not much written about whether or not it “worked.”
Now, of course, to a certain extent it did work, as did MLK’s social action, speeches, and sadly, his death, in addition to the work of countless other civil rights advocates, but whenever I think specifically about the impact of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I can’t help but wonder if it actually changed any of the clergymen’s minds, or had a life-altering affect on any residents of Birmingham.
And I wonder about this in regard to many arguments I hear made, debates I witness, and apologists I read. Do all these words, all this time spent building a case, ever actually work to convince somebody that the position that they hold is wrong and that they should exchange it for another, more correct stance?
And yet, I know that people do change their minds. I don’t know how I would describe myself politically prior to 2001, but I know that whatever it was (must’ve been somewhere between far right and right of the center, as that’s where my parents, church, and educators were coming from), by 2002, my views were very different from those of the people that had an influence on me in my youth. I can point to a few definitive books I read (Franny and Zooey, On the Road . . . yeah, I know), and some very important people I met, conversations I had, and things I experienced (studying in Kenya was big in this regard), but I can’t point a finger to any one thing as the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I’ve come to realize that, for the most part, I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, semester after semester I make my students read and write arguing essays. And then I evaluate them on the clarity of their writing, certainly, but also on their ability to form a cohesive point and defend it. I teach them about three different kinds of arguments: traditional (I’m right, you’re wrong), constructive (I’m right, and I want to help you see why you’re wrong), and Rogerian (I’m right, but you may also be right, let’s compromise), but more often than not they choose the traditional style. And I’ve had some good writers over the years, but not once has one of them convinced me of anything I didn’t already believe. Nobody wins the argument, yet I still make each student do it.
Why do I continue to believe that learning how to make an effective argument is important when I really think it’s not a good argument that changes a person’s mind but a series of events, experiences, and lessons learned? Perhaps some of those influential books, essays, and stories that I read back in 2002 were argumentative in nature, and certainly my views grew more nuanced and I became more certain of what I was coming to believe through arguments, but not to the point where I feel comfortable saying an argument changed my mind.
It’s a scary thing to change one’s mind, to admit that the beliefs and values one clings to may not be as deeply held as once thought. And for a person so often prideful as I am, it is also a deeply humbling experience to reevaluate and to be found wrong. I know this is the case not simply based on 2002, or even on any of the hundreds of minor changes and course corrections that I’ve made in the years since, but because I fear it may be happening again.
I’m halfway through famed (infamous?) evangelical author Brian D. McLaren’s latest offering, A New Kind of Christianity. The book has attracted a lot of attention, mostly because of the overwhelming wave of extremely negative reviews it is garnering from other evangelicals. I’ve read McLaren before but, based on some of the commentary I’d heard about this book, even I approached it with some trepidation, with a bit of fear that he may have gone too far.
McLaren’s book is an argument, an apologetic. If I had to classify it for my class I would say it’s somewhere between a traditional and a constructive argument. The details of his case for a new kind of Christianity are the subject for a different sort of essay, but suffice it to say, his argument is made well. His points are clear and rational and, most importantly in an arguing essay, he appeals to what the reader may have already thought or believed though may never have given voice to.
This is a tactic I encourage my students to use, one that Martin Luther King, Jr. used miraculously. It involves knowing your audience and making an appeal to them that is both respectful and transformative. McLaren knows me. Like King knew his fellow clergymen, McLaren knows his left-leaning evangelical.
I can’t say where this will all end up, or where I’ll be when the pieces land. But I can say that I’m beginning to believe more fully in the power of the arguing essay. I can say that I’m beginning to change my mind.