|Carter Motors, Inc., Volkswagen, Seattle WA, 1973 by Alden Jewell|
Helping students learn to use reason and logic when writing requires that they understand the difference between persuasion and argumentation.
When I ask students to write argumentative essays in their beginning composition courses, we begin with a brief lesson on the difference between persuasion and argumentation. Since I have been explaining this difference, student papers have improved tremendously. The papers sound less like infomercials and more like reasoned arguments in favor of a position. The former is persuasion, and the latter is argumentation.
Writing an Essay in the Persuasive Mode
The difficulty in asking students to write a persuasive essay is that the purpose of persuasion is to convince or persuade another person to do or believe something by any means necessary. Barnet and Bedau explain, in From Critical Thinking to Argument, that “To persuade is to win over – whether by giving reasons (that is, by argument), by appealing to the emotions, or, for that matter, by using torture” (2011, pg. 51). As instructors, we certainly don’t want students to write essays with any sort of faulty reasoning, be it emotional or another error in relevance, an ambiguity error, or an unwarranted assumption. Even more so, we do not want students contemplating the use of torture as an appropriate alternative to writing a paper.
Writing an Argumentative Essay
Just as students must be able to narrow a topic in order to more effectively write about that topic, we must ask that students narrow down their purpose for writing in the persuasive mode by asking that they write using argumentation versus torture or emotional appeal, otherwise known as pathos.
When we ask students to write argumentative essays, we are asking them to use logic and reason, or the quality of logos, to support a claim by offering sound and valid reasons. By giving well-researched and unbiased information in an essay, students are demonstrating they are well-meaning and trustworthy writers. The demonstration of that quality, also known as ethos, proves to readers that the writer has a just position and can be believed.
A hypothetical example I use to help students understand the difference between these two terms is an example about buying a car. Students can usually relate to the example, which includes a demonstration of all three types of persuasive techniques: the use of reason, emotion, and even a little torture.
An Anecdote: The Difference between Persuasion and Argumentation
"Pretend you’re in the market for a new car," I tell the students. "When we finish the example, we'll talk about the differences between what the salespeople at the dealerships do, and what you will need to do." Then, I begin my example:
You decide to look at a Ford dealership and at a Volkswagen dealership to compare a few different cars you’ve liked for a long time.
When you go to the Ford dealership, the salesman tells you all about the new Ford Mustang. Using his persuasive skills and a bit of emotional appeal and a few relevancy errors, he tells you how safe it is, what great gas mileage it has, how reliable it is, and how popular it is with people who are exactly like you. He tells you how great you’ll look behind the wheel of this American classic. He makes you sit in an office for 6 – 8 hours while he and his manager “negotiate” the price of the car. This salesman has used persuasion, not argumentation, to try to sell you the Mustang.
Then you go and look at Beetles at the Volkswagen dealership. When you get to the Volkswagen dealership, the salesman tells you all about the new Beetle. Using his persuasive skills, including a little emotional appeal and a few relevancy errors, he tells you how safe it is, what great gas mileage it has, how reliable it is, and how popular it is with people who are exactly like you. He tells you how great you’ll look behind the wheel of this reliable classic. He makes you sit in an office for 6 – 8 hours while he and his manager “negotiate” a sales price. This salesman has used persuasion, not argumentation, to try to sell you the Beetle.
After you visit both dealerships, you go home to put your critical thinking skills to the test and consider your options. You do additional research on both cars to check the facts given to you by the dealers, make pro and con lists for both vehicles, rate your priorities, and make a sound decision about which car to buy. Once you complete your research, you choose to buy the Volkswagen Beetle.
The day after your purchase, you drive your new car to work where you’re greeted by a co-worker who says, “That’s not even an American car! Why’d you decide to buy that car?” Now you’re in a pickle. You have to defend your position to your co-worker while refuting his assumption that an American car was the best choice for you. In other words, responding to your co-worker will require skills in argumentation.
All of the test drives, questions to the salesperson, and time spent investigating options was research. Coming to a conclusion about which car to purchase was the culmination of that research. That research can now be used to create an argument that will address the issue presented by your co-worker.
Want to read more about critical thinking and argumentation?
- Stages in the Development of Critical Thinking
- Why Do I Have to Prewrite?
- Writing an Argumentative Essay: Basic Terminology
- Sticky Theories: A Lesson for Critical Thinking
- Assessing Critical Thinking
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- Barnet, S. & Bedau, H. (2011). From critical thinking to argument: A portable guide. (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s.
Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author for permission to republish.