Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review: The Informed Argument

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: The Informed Argument

Date: 1998

Publisher: Harcourt Brace & Company

ISBN: 0-15-503809-5

Length: 700 pages of text plus index

Quote: "Argument is a means of fulfilling desire...for something as abstract as truth or as concrete as an increase in salary."

Although assembled as a textbook, this book consists mostly of samples of good writing about the "hot topics" of the 1990s. Most of the samples can be read for pleasure or for research on the topics, as well as examples of good writing.

School choice, grading, cloning, assisted suicide, affirmative action, and public funding for the arts get two essays each. Gun control, immigration, same-sex marriage, sexual harassment, regulation of the Internet, multiculturalism in education, and national parks get more. Finally, Miller reprints fifteen "classic" arguments" by Plato, Machiavelli, Marvell, Swift, Jefferson, Wollstonecraft, Marx, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Margaret Sanger, Hitler, Gandhi, Carl Rogers, Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King, and Betty Friedan.

Taken as a whole, The Informed Argument can also be used as an example of how it's possible to present both sides of an issue without remaining neutral on the issue or, for that matter, presenting all points of view.

If a textbook "should" be impartial, the issue of same-sex marriage is particularly ineptly handled. The basic fact that marriage is meant to unite families by offering at least the theoretical possibility of children is well stated in this book. So is the basic fact that any number of people who aren't married, in any assortment of genders, who may or may not ever have had sex with each other, may reasonably want to be "domestic partners" who take over the functions of a spouse when one "partner" dies or becomes ill. There is, however, no recognition of the idea that recognizing domestic partnership would be much, much less controversial if the term "marriage" and the references to sex were taken out of the debate.

A few years ago, I wrote a Yahoo article expounding further on the concept of domestic partnership (which was legally recognized in the District of Columbia, in 2005, without a squawk from the right wing) as something that all kinds of people, especially postsexual senior citizens, might need and should respect. Someone posted a whiny comment about how cruel it was to deny homosexual couples the chance to "express their love" through what the majority of Americans consider a parody of marriage. I don't think this argument is worthy of even a college freshman; if it needed to be mentioned in The Informed Argument, I think it should have been mentioned as an example of dithering off on an unproductive tangent. But it is in The Informed Argument, while the more rational, less emotional argument that would actually integrate a few "unhappy gays" into a solid majority has been ignored.

"Which side are you on?" I think the best response to several of the tired old debates of the twentieth century is to take neither side. The question about the legal aspects of marriage is entirely about care-giving, having nothing to do with sex. That's my bias, and since this is a blog not a textbook I'm entitled to state it openly.

But I have a reason for singling out this example of Miller's bias. (There are others.) The reason is not that Miller failed in 1998 to foresee that I'd write something on this topic in 2008. The reason is that Miller winds up the section on same-sex marriage with the proposed assignment, on page 287: "Imagine that a close friend has just come out to you, revealing that she is in love with another woman. You were shocked...Write a letter that will both convey your beliefs and preserve your friendship."

The political beliefs, religious beliefs, and personal feelings of college freshmen do not always mesh with each other. I think this is, at best, an assignment few college students could carry out. Students might not think that this hypothetical friendship, if they had it, would need to be preserved. On the other hand, students might not find anything shocking about this hypothetical confession--what if they've already declared themselves "gay"? I find it hard to imagine any teacher who gave out this assignment grading all the possible answers fairly. Can the overall effect of this section be regarded, not only as betraying Miller's bias, but as promoting religious discrimination?

So I'd have serious reservations about the use of The Informed Argument as a textbook. As a collection of well written essays, however, I recommend it to anyone who is free to ignore its biases and use whatever they find useful in it.