Last week at a party I had the opportunity to speak with a professor from the University of Penn who noted the difficulties in teaching persuasive writing in an era when shouting––literally and figuratively––passes for debate and logical reasoning is characterized as inertia.
What is persuasive writing exactly? You may know it best as the "essay test" where you are expected to establish a thesis or take a stand pro or con an issue and defend your position with facts. In the larger world the classic newspaper editorial or op-ed piece, at its best, is persuasive writing. The Declaration of Independence is persuasive writing. It sets out the thesis that the time has come for "...for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another..." then goes on to "declare the causes which impel them to the separation." The Federalist Papers were a series of persuasive essays written for the purpose of persuading states to ratify the Constitution.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of "persuade" is to "cause (someone) to do something through reasoning and argument" to "cause (someone) to believe something, esp. after a sustained argument." The implication is that persuasion is a slow, and somewhat low-key, process. After all, if you hold a strong opinion and you sense someone is trying to steer you in the other direction, you will simply shut them out. The true art of persuasion is much like fishing. The fish, enticed by the lure, swallows the hook. Then the fisherman slowly and smoothly reels the fish in to keep it from fighting and dislodging the hook or breaking the line before he can land it. And like a good fisherman who will give a large fish some slack now and then, the best persuasive essays rely not only on supporting facts, but will also note the facts that seem to support an opposite position and then shoot holes in them.
Unfortunately we see little of that nuanced art today. Though opinions fly, ad nauseam, from the mouths and keyboards of everyone from politicians to journalists to talk show hosts to the everyman blogger , few engage in the art of persuasion. Instead they bludgeon us with their beliefs and replace reasoned argument with visceral appeals, innuendo, and non-sequiturs, e.g. "the same people who want to save the whales care nothing about the life of an unborn child" or "the same people who call themselves pro-life don't care about inner city kids being gunned down in the streets." Such broad and uncorroborated statements would never have stood up in even my high school papers, yet these days I read those silly "arguments" regularly in the most prestigious newspapers and magazines, often written by journalists or "experts" with Ivy League educations. Is it a wonder students view persuasive writing as a relic perfected for the SATs and quickly cast aside like high school algebra?
The Internet puts facts literally at our fingertips, making persuasive argument that much easier over the days when our Founding Fathers needed to hold important information in their heads. It should also make writers more accountable for the "facts" they use to back up an argument, because we can easily call them out on their misstatements. Unfortunately, few Internet readers bother to find the original source, preferring to choose articles that reinforce their own views and spreading the misinformation exponentially. Take for example the current healthcare debate with journalists as well as senators and representatives (who should, I believe, be held to a higher standard) regularly bandying broad phrases like "government takeover" and "healthcare rationing." No matter where you stand on the issue, I defy anyone to show me anything coming near that in the bill recently passed by the House or the one currently before the Senate.
Now, imagine a teacher assigning an essay on the topic and requiring students to back up a position with facts. Why would they see it as anything more than a useless exercise, like practicing handwriting in this day of word processing?