When I was a student studying philosophy, the topics I chose to write about – from the ethics of food to the nature of consciousness – were often dictated by my strong convictions. With my position already confirmed, my research process was but a means to an end. When it came time to write, I would marshal my arguments as clearly as I could to help the reader see what I had long known to be true. I’d of course include counterarguments. After all, my professors wanted to know that I was measured and thoughtful; they wanted to know that I was open-minded.
Prominent researchers within the field of critical thinking, including Robert Ennis and Richard Paul, agree that open-mindedness is an important component of critical thinking. Without the ability to be receptive to alternative perspectives, analytical reasoning skills have little to evaluate. In this way, it is difficult to imagine a good critical thinker who is closed-minded. Meanwhile, many faculty across the disciplines regard the argumentative essay, particularly the persuasive essay, as the gold standard of assessments. It’s widely thought that students who write an effective persuasive essay demonstrate a full range of critical thinking skills, including open-mindedness. Students develop this skill by conducting a balanced literature search and interpreting the work of others in a fair-minded manner. But can a fair inquiry take place when students are saddled with prior beliefs on a topic?
In a recently published article entitled “How argumentative writing stifles open-mindedness” in the journal Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, I argue that argumentative writing genres do not challenge students to confront key cognitive biases when engaging in moral, political and social topics. Rather than motivating students to inquire into the truth of a topic, these genres unwittingly serve to preserve students’ prior beliefs. Challenging and overturning one’s beliefs can be a psychologically difficult experience that can disturb one’s way of being in the world. With no mechanism to confront cognitive biases, including confirmation bias (i.e., the biased seeking of evidence) and motivated reasoning (i.e., the biased interpretation of evidence), argumentative writing genres enable students to take the path of least resistance.
The wealth of empirical research that has demonstrated confirmation bias, motivated reasoning and a cluster of associated biases pose a serious challenge to argumentative writing. The persuasive essay, for example, may be a better measure of good rationalization than good critical thinking – that is, we may be assessing students’ abilities to defend a view to which they were already predisposed to believe. While rationalization requires cleverness, it does not require learning. There’s no growth, no challenging of one’s ideas. When I think back to my time as a student, I may have been getting good marks on my persuasive essays – checking all the boxes on the rubric – but I was anything but open-minded. In fact, writing persuasive essays may have added fuel to the fire, not simply perpetuating my prior beliefs but strengthening them.
If argumentative writing genres aid to prevent open-mindedness in students and result in even more polarizing beliefs, then we need a new kind of writing genre that targets this foundational skill. To address this need, I propose a genre called the complexity paper. The writer of a complexity paper is not trying to convince the reader of a particular position. Rather, the writer is trying to convince the reader that the particular issue under investigation is complex and difficult to resolve. One of the main goals of a complexity paper is to put opposing views on a topic in their best possible lights. To accomplish this task, it is necessary to research advocates of each position by conducting a full literature search. Moreover, to articulate different viewpoints in their best lights, it is necessary to interpret evidence carefully and without bias.
Since the goal is to illustrate that an issue is complicated, the reader should not be able to determine the writer’s position on the issue. Given this structure, even students who have strong prior beliefs on the topic will be motivated to understand opposing perspectives. Ideally, the inquiry would plant a seed of doubt in students’ minds. This is ideal because doubt keeps biases at bay.
Whether or not the complexity paper is the solution, argumentative writing has a problem. It stifles open-mindedness. In a time when moral, political and social topics are becoming increasingly polarized, developing students’ open-mindedness ought to be a top priority for educators.
James Southworth is a writing consultant at Wilfrid Laurier University.