In “More Argument, Fewer Standards” (Education Week, April 19, 2011), Mike Schmoker and Gerald Graff start off seemingly hot, saying:
If we want record numbers of students to succeed in postsecondary studies and careers, an ancient, accessible concept needs to be restored to its rightful place at the center of schooling: argument. In its various forms, it includes the ability to analyze and assess our facts and evidence, support our solutions, and defend our interpretations and recommendations with clarity and precision in every subject area. Argument is the primary skill essential to our success as citizens, students, and workers.
Sounds good, right? They call for teaching students to use “evidence” and “clarity” and “precision.” Can’t argue with that! Sounds perfect!
But let’s see what else they say. What is their context? What is their underlying epistemology? What is their view of logic and of concepts?
In the meantime, let’s immediately begin, as the new standards urge us, to give students hundreds of opportunities, every year, to dismantle and defend arguments about increasingly rich, complex texts. From the earliest grades, let’s have them argue about the pros and cons of almost anything: literary characters and interpretations, global warming, capitalism vs. socialism, Sarah Palin, or the comparative quality of life in the United States and Canada (based on statistical analysis). Let’s ask students to explain their reasoning for which alternative-energy source we should invest in as they read, talk, and write about what they are learning in novels, textbooks, newspapers, and magazines.
© 2011 Editorial Projects in Education
And there we have what they are really after: divorcing concepts and minds from reality. Students, the authors say, should be encouraged to argue about things about which they know nothing or about which they are cognitively not ready for. The hierarchy of knowledge should be ignored and violated — but, like a building, if you take away the lower floors, the building cannot stand; like a tree, if you take away the roots and grounds, the tree cannot survive, live, and flourish.
Divorce argument from objectivity, hierarchy, context, and the evidence of the senses, and you have a Platonic hash.