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Welcome to college. Now start an argument.

Reasoned Discourse in College.

By Stephen Combs

No, not that kind of argument, where you throw things and scream. I mean the kind of argument scholars make, what an expert in this field, Professor Chris Crawford, calls “achieving positions through reasoned discourse.” Understanding this concept is absolutely essential. Without it, nothing of real academic importance is possible.

Of all the advantages homeschoolers have over their public school friends, none exceeds their better understanding of the purpose of scholarship. They correctly anticipate that college is more than memorizing facts and filling out worksheets, the kind of busy work they were blessed to avoid as homeschoolers.

Still, a quick look at differences between high school and college learning is worth the effort. Whole books could be written on this subject (actually, I am writing one), but the bullet-point version is this:

  • Successful public high school students are agreeable, passive, compliant. They dutifully swallow the teacher’s spoon-fed pontifications and regurgitate them on demand, like a canary.

Successful college students are skeptical because they learn how to think independently. They challenge their professors’ assumptions and those of their fellow students. They are not afraid to ask questions.

Homeschoolers in the second category are well positioned to achieve success in college. They understand that knowledge is a product of thinking, not of memorizing.

It all begins with writing

Writing is key to learning because we cannot take ownership of an idea until we can write about it: Analyze it, explain it, question it, defend it, argue it.

Argument is presentation of an idea that is supported with research and defended with reasoning. Dr. Crawford, who is vice provost and associate professor of leadership studies at Fort Hays State University, explains the subject thoroughly in Making Argument Work (McGraw-Hill).

“The purpose of argument is to influence, rather than coerce,” Crawford says, calling it “essentially a request” for change in behavior or change in belief.

While we mostly think of argument as an essential element of that time-honored freshman English assignment The Persuasive Essay, consider this: We use argument to some degree in almost anything we write. For example:

The informative essay, another English 101 favorite, makes argument because of the author’s unstated but understood purpose, even if the topic is how to fix a plumbing leak: Here is what I have to say. Here is why my words are true. You may trust my words. (This takes on added importance when the subject is, say, coronary bypass surgery.)

Spend some effort to learn more about the role of argument in college writing. And before putting down that first word, understand this about the writing you will produce in college (the exception is creative writing). It is:

  • Formal. It does not contain contractions, abbreviations, slang or pointless vulgarity.
  • Research based. Claims are supported with scholarly research. College writing is not about me, I, I believe, somebody told me, or that’s what I heard on television. Libraries and professional data bases, not popular websites, will be the source of most research.

Usually written in the third person viewpoint.

Good writing advice is everywhere, from the cerebral Rudolph Flesch with The Classic Guide to Better Writing to the very funny Richard Lederer and Anguished English. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab is big and it’s free. Ultimately, however, we learn how to write by writing — lots of writing over many years — and by reading.

Stephen Combs teaches writing and critical thinking at University of Phoenix in Florida. He is the co-author of Road Dog and currently is writing a book on critical thinking for the college-bound high school student. He can be reached at [email protected]>.


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