by Diana Senechal
I have nothing against evidence but am wary of the ascendant “evidence state.” I have seen nonfiction vigilantes marching around, asking, “where’s your evidence? where’s your evidence?” Those who question its rule get sneered out of town, if not steeply fined. This is not right. Evidence has its place, but it cannot and should not dominate everything. Even in the best arguments, evidence (strictly defined) is only one way of substantiating a point.
With the emphasis on “informational text” in the Common Core State Standards, students will be told, again and again, that they must back up their arguments with evidence. This is an important skill but only one of many. Some arguments use illustrative examples; some, reasoning; some, eloquence; and many, a mixture of all of these.
Arguments with evidence exist, of course, and can be quite convincing indeed. For instance, there’s Thomas Jefferson’s argument in the Declaration of Independence:
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
And so on. Jefferson offers fact after fact to demonstrate the “repeated injuries and usurpations” of King George III. In this case, evidence makes all the difference, since those considering revolt would want to be convinced that the King has indeed established absolute tyranny.
Some arguments use examples that illustrate rather than prove the point. In his letter “On the Shortness of Life,” Seneca (ca. 4 B.C.–65 A.D.) posits that our lives are long but that we make them short through “idle busyness”—that is, by occupying ourselves with empty activities. Here’s one example he provides:
Tell me, would you say that those men are at leisure who pass many hours at the barber’s while they are being stripped of whatever grew out the night before? while a solemn debate is held over each separate hair? while either disarranged locks are restored to their place or thinning ones drawn from this side and that toward the forehead? How angry they get if the barber has been a bit too careless, just as if he were shearing a real man! How they flare up if any of their mane is lopped off, if any of it lies out of order, if it does not all fall into its proper ringlets! Who of these would not rather have the state disordered than his hair? Who is not more concerned to have his head trim rather than safe? Who would not rather be well barbered than upright?
This is not “evidence”; rather, it shows vividly how the waste of time might play out. Anyone in his day might have complained that he exaggerated—that no one spent that much time at the barber’s or gave that much attention to their locks of hair. But that isn’t the point. This vivid hyperbole (if it is hyperbole) is there to convey the nature of the problem, not to prove its existence or extent. Beyond that, it’s just plain funny.
Then there’s argument with reasoning: for instance, in G. K. Chesterton’s essay “On Turnpikes and Mediævalism” (in All I Survey, 1933). Chesterton refutes a newspaper article’s assertion that a turnpike-gate with a toll is a relic of medievalism.
If we were really relics of mediævalism–that is, if we had really been taught to think–we should have put that question first, and discussed whether a thing is bad or good before discussing whether it is modern or mediæval. There is no space to discuss it here at length, but a very simple test in the matter may be made. The aim and effect of tolls is simply this: that those who use the roads shall pay for the roads. As it is, the poor people of a district, including those who never stir from their villages, and hardly from their firesides, pay to maintain roads which are ploughed up and torn to pieces by the cars and lorries of rich men and big businesses, coming from London and the distant cities. It is not self-evident that this is a more just arrangement than that by which wayfarers pay to keep up the way, even if that arrangement were a relic of mediævalism.
The logic is as follows: instead of fretting over whether a thing is modern or medieval, let us consider its merit. In this case, it seems fairer to have the roads maintained by those who ride than by those who cannot afford a car. Thus a turnpike-gate is more reasonable than the absence thereof, even if it is a relic of medievalism. Of course the reasoning is only part of the essay; the rest is wit and soul and a gift for putting nonsense in its place.
Eloquence, or compelling language, is its own kind of persuasion, usually but not always mixed with other kinds. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1892 speech “Solitude of Self” stirs some kind of recognition and awe in the reader, through the very language.
And yet, there is a solitude, which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea; the solitude of self. Our inner being, which we call ourself, no eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced. It is more hidden than the caves of the gnome; the sacred adytum of the oracle; the hidden chamber of Eleusinian mystery, for to it only omniscience is permitted to enter.
The speech employs reasoning and example along the way; it argues that women need education equal to that of men, precisely because they must face so much of life alone. But the description of solitude, the core of her argument, has no evidence to prove it; it persuades through its starkness and beauty. If such argument were not permitted, simply because it lacked evidence, then we would lose a great deal of our nonfiction and fiction.
Each of these ways of substantiating argument has many variations, and they appear in combination more often than not. If schools are to give more attention to nonfiction (and to argument in particular), then they should acknowledge argument’s richness. If we assume that all good arguments must have evidence, then we narrow our view at great cost. This narrowness threatens even freedom of speech, as anything without evidence (or the appearance thereof) will be dismissed. We should resist such limitation. Argument thrives not only on statistics and facts, but also on uncertainties, questions, and risks; reasoning that startles you out of your assumptions; examples that make you laugh or shudder; and language that persists in the mind.
Diana Senechal’s book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in January 2012. She is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.