6. Analysis: Main Body: Evaluation and Recommendations

6. Analysis: The Main Body: Evaluation and Recommendations

In this lecture I’ll summarize the overall logic of the argument presented in the essay, and compare it with the organizational structure recommended in Part 1 of this lecture series. Then I’ll offer some suggestions on how to strengthen the argument of the essay.

i. Summary of the Overall Logic

The original essay has five paragraphs, three of which constitute the main body of the essay. The author intended for these three paragraphs to be read as giving three separate arguments for the conclusion, but our analysis showed that this wasn’t really the case.

The first paragraph does give an argument, what we might call the “hardship” argument. This is the one that says that removing laptops would impose on unfair hardship on students who really benefit from the advantages of taking notes on a laptop. If you take away their laptops then those students are at an unfair disadvantage in the classroom.

The second paragraph, however, doesn’t really have any argumentative content. All it does is repeat the conclusion, that teachers don’t have a right to take away students’ laptops. Then there’s the point about students “paying good money for their education”, as though that fact alone is supposed to entitle them to use their laptops, but this point isn’t developed, and it’s not clear how the author thought it should be relevant to the moral issue, so it was hard to know how to reconstruct an argument.

The third paragraph is interesting in that it doesn’t really present a third argument as such. Rather, it presents an objection to the main conclusion and offers a reply to the objection.

Once we did some argument reconstruction, we saw that the objection was that some students who use laptops in class are going to be distracted and won’t learn as well, and teachers have right — maybe a duty — to set policies that remove obstacles to learning, and therefore they have a right to ban laptops from the classroom, for the sake of those students who just can’t help but be distracted by the presence of their laptops.

The reply focused on the assumption that teachers have a right to set whatever classroom policies they want if they think the policies are in the best interests of the students. The author challenges this paternalistic assumption, arguing that it treats college students like children who can’t take responsibility for their own educational choices. But college students aren’t children, they’re adults, and teachers should treat them like adults, and if that means a student fails because they can’t stay away from Facebook during class, then so be it.

ii. Recommendations

My first recommendation is to get rid of paragraph 2, since it’s not really doing any work for us.

Now we can work on developing the arguments in the first and third paragraphs.

The first thing I want to point out is that the objection considered in paragraph three isn’t really an objection to the “hardship” argument given in paragraph 1.

Remember the hardship argument is based on the claim that some students would be disadvantaged by the loss of their laptops, and the claim that teachers shouldn’t adopt policies that unfairly discriminate against certain students. The objection considered in paragraph 3 doesn’t address either of these claims. The objection does challenge the main conclusion, the main thesis of the essay, but it’s really a separate argument against the conclusion, it’s not targeting the premises or the logic of the argument given in the first paragraph.

So, my next recommendation is that the author consider an objection and a reply to this argument, the hardship argument.

i. Formulating the Objection to the Hardship Argument

The principle I’m appealing to here is that a good argumentative essay should consider objections to every distinct argument for the main thesis that is presented in the main body. Objections to one argument don’t automatically count as objections to other arguments.

So, let’s go back and take a look at this argument and ask ourselves what a natural objection to it might be.

1. Banning the use of laptops will disadvantage certain students in the classroom (those that really benefit from the use of laptops...).

2. Teachers should not adopt classroom policies that disadvantage certain students but not others.

Therefore, teachers should not ban the use of laptops in classrooms.

As presented here, the logic works fine, if there’s a problem it’s with the plausibility of the premises.

Now, I’m inclined to accept premise 2, that teachers shouldn’t adopt policies that disadvantage some students but not others. But only if the disadvantage is significant — if the disadvantage is minor, a mere inconvenience, then premise 2 isn’t so compelling. So the question is whether the disadvantage to students caused by removing laptops is a significant disadvantage.

So, a weakness of this argument is that premise 2 is only plausible if the hardships imposed on students by banning laptops are significant.

Consequently, the natural objection is this: the disadvantages, the hardships, imposed on students by banning laptops are, in general, not significant. If you’ve got a student with a disability that’s one thing, but if the complaint is that your fingers get tired fast, or your handwriting isn’t all that clear, or you’re forced to use a paper filing system rather than an electronic filing system, that sounds more like an inconvenience than a genuine hardship.

ii. Formulating a Reply to the Objection

Now, if this is the objection, then you can only reply in one of two ways. You could argue that even if the disadvantages are minor inconveniences, teachers should still be able to adopt policies that remove those disadvantages. I’m not sure off the top how to defend that, but that’s one way to go.

The other way to reply is just to argue the empirical issue: “No, the disadvantages imposed ARE significant, for some students.”

You could make this reply stronger by presenting, say, the results of studies that show what fraction of students use typing as their primary mode of written communication, or studies on learning styles and the value of supporting a diversity of learning styles in the classroom. And so on, you get the idea.

iii. Strengthening the Reply to the Paternalism Argument

Now, let’s go back and take a look at the objection-reply pair in paragraph 3:

Teachers complain that having a laptop is too much temptation for some students. They just can't keep themselves from browsing Facebook or playing solitaire in class, so they don't pay attention and miss out on important information or don't participate in class discussions. To this I say that college students are adults and need to be treated as adults, and that means they should take responsibility for their own education. If someone wants to chat on Facebook all day let him, it's his choice to fail, not the teacher's.

A question that might naturally arise here is whether the author should make an effort to first present an argument that can serve as the target of the objection, so that we have a nice 3-argument set, with argument, followed by objection, followed by reply.

My answer is sure, you could do that, but you don’t have to, there are lots of ways of organizing the argumentative points here that could be equally effective.

Sometimes an argumentative essay is structured around responses to possible objections to the main thesis, so the format is closer to “Here’s my claim. Tell me why I should reject it”, and the burden of proof is passed on to the opposition to provide compelling arguments against the claim, and the essay focuses on systematically replying to possible objections. That’s a perfectly good format, and you can use some of that format here, in this part of the essay.

A more important issue is whether the reply is as strong as it could be. Here’s the original objection:

To this I say that college students are adults and need to be treated as adults, and that means they should take responsibility for their own education. If someone wants to chat on Facebook all day let him, it's his choice to fail, not the teacher's.

You can see the focus is on treating students as adults, and we interpreted this as a challenge to the unconditional truth of premise 3 above. Yes, teachers have a right to set classroom policies that remove obstacles to learning, but this right isn’t absolute. In this case it conflicts with the right of students to choose their own learning styles, and it’s unjustifiably paternalistic, it treats students like children rather than like adults.

That’s the reply. My concern about this reply —and this is what I would tell the author of this essay — is that it pits one rights claim against another, the teachers’ versus the students’, but it’s not clear in the reply why the students’ interests in having the freedom to fail should outweigh the teacher’s interests in optimizing the learning experience for students.

This is an important concept in moral reasoning. When you pit rights claims against one another, or moral considerations of any kind against one another, you’ve got a situation like this, where the moral issue turns on which claim is stronger — are they equally strong, or does one outweigh the other? If they’re equally strong then you’re at a stalemate, it’s unclear what the policy should be.

However, if the student’s rights clearly outweigh the teacher’s rights in this case, then we judge the policy to be wrong and the students win.

But it goes both ways, if the teacher’s rights clearly outweigh the student’s rights, then the policy is justified and the teachers win.

The problem, from an argumentative standpoint, is that different people may have different intuitions about which rights claim is stronger. Relying on people’s intuitions about the case is risky, because you might have people who grant the setup but think that the teacher’s rights in this case outweigh the students’ rights.

iv. Why Should the Student’s Rights Outweigh the Teacher’s Rights?

In a case like this, what you might want to do is offer some additional reasons why one set of rights claims should outweigh the other set. The author of this essay needs to say why the students rights claims should outweigh the teacher’s rights claims. As it stands the essay doesn’t give us any additional reasons.

So how do you do this? There are different ways you could do it.

Here’s one way: You could reason by analogy. Let’s consider some other policies that would have the effect of removing obstacles to learning.

Claim: Coming to school tired and hungry impedes student learning.

Clearly a true claim. So, if teachers have a right to impose policies that remove obstacles to student learning, then why not impose this policy?

Policy: All students are required to sign a contract promising that they’ll eat three well-balanced meals a day and get at least 8 hours of sleep at night.

Heck, why not require that they all wear monitors that keep track of their food intake and sleep periods, so we don’t have to rely on the honor system. That would be even more effective.

Or how about this?

Claim: Students who work more than 20 hours a week at part-time jobs do worse in school, on average, than students who work fewer hours.

Let’s say this figure is true, that students who work more than 20 hours a week are likely to do worse in school than those who work fewer hours.

Why, then, shouldn’t teachers be allowed to put limits on student work hours?

Policy: Students are not allowed to work more than 20 hours a week at part-time jobs.

You see where this is going. Most of us will think “no, these policies are not defensible”. Even if these policies would improve student learning, our intuition is that teachers don’t have a right to micro-manage the lives of students, it’s a violation of a student’s rights to non-interference, and it fails to respect the autonomy of students, their right to make and take responsibility for their own choices.

So the question is, why isn’t a ban on laptops similar?

This is an example of reasoning by analogy, or reasoning by “similar cases”. You present a series of cases where the intuitions are clearer, and then claim that the case under consideration is similar in all relevant respects to the cases you just presented; therefore, rationality dictates that the intuitions in those cases should carry over.

Anyway, this is meant only to give some idea of how one might beef up this part of the essay.

I’m not saying this line of reasoning is ultimately persuasive. Arguments from analogy are notoriously vulnerable to certain kinds of objection (like, whether the cases really are similar in all the relevant respects) but on the whole, offering some considerations like this might be helpful in strengthening the reasoning in this section.

iii. Summing Up

Okay, that was long, but we’re done with my recommendations for strengthening the logic of the essay.

As a point of summary, let me just note the two principles that informed my evaluation and recommendations in this section.

The first is that a good argumentative essay should consider objections to every distinct argument presented in the main body. We saw that in the essay we’ve been looking at, the author didn’t consider possible objections to the first argument given, so we had to give that some thought.

The second principle is that when a moral issue is framed as a conflict of rights or conflict of values issue, and it’s not obvious to your audience which rights or values should outweigh the other, you need to provide additional argumentation in favor of one side. This was the guiding principle in my recommendations for strengthening the objection-reply pair in paragraph 3.