I will typically claim that a thesis in persuasive writing is constructed of a simple or implied “claim” or “position” stated with reasons or arguments in tow. Like this: Democracy is good because it promotes liberty and participatory government. “Democracy is good” is the position. The “because it” (1) “promotes liberty and” (2) promotes “participatory government” parts are the reasons why I have the position.
But (and there’s always a but) the above could just as easily be written: Democracy promotes liberty and participatory government. In this version the expressed position becomes a set of arguments, which implies that “Democracy” is good because people think “liberty” and “participation” are desirable values. It’s pretty clear what my position is and that “participatory” and “liberty” should be interpreted as good things, and so Democracy is good.
Note that this not the same thing as saying “sausage is tasty but may turn you into a truck tire if you eat too much of it.” How can you convince someone that sausage is tasty. People have to taste it to disagree or agree.
Consider Chris Hayes’s chapter on Hunter College High found at The Nation magazine. The title is Why Elites Fail. It’s always interesting to consider what titles and how the language of titles reflects a logic of meaning. The title broken down says that Elites (we might know what this means) Fail and the following set of paragraphs will present Reasons Why. A title can imply a thesis as I’ve previously defined it. As you’ll see from the first paragraph, the author doesn’t begin with: Hey, here’s my first reason. No, he paints a picture. It’s not really until paragraph five where Hayes presents a direct reference to his position: “. . . the mechanisms of meritocracy have broken down.” Note that you should already as a reader have looked up the words “elite” and “meritocracy.” Otherwise, your ability to engage the chapter will be hindered and your reading will be the equivalent of sleepwalking. One way of managing “framing devises” is to weigh concepts in their context by the way authors use them.
In that same paragraph, Hayes introduces a reason why “meritocracy” has broken down. (Of course, now is a good time to reread the first few paragraphs and to consider the picture Hayes has developed). While once Hunter Prep drew people from a range of backgrounds, this range has been narrowed by certain kinds of advantages. He writes:
Now, so-called cram schools like Elite Academy in Queens can charge thousands of dollars for after-school and weekend courses where sixth graders memorize vocabulary words and learn advanced math. Meanwhile, in the wealthier precincts of Manhattan, parents can hire $90-an-hour private tutors for one-on-one sessions with their children.
Following this, Hayes makes his knife cut:
By 2009, Hunter’s demographics were radically different—just 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, according to the New York Times. With the rise of a sophisticated and expensive test-preparation industry, the means of selecting entrants to Hunter has grown less independent of the social and economic hierarchies in New York at large. The pyramid of merit has come to mirror the pyramid of wealth and cultural capital.
Hayes uses statistics to argue a relationship between meritocratic breakdown, economic advantage, and, the world of test prep. He writes, “In 1995, when I was a student at Hunter, the student body was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic.” Prior to test prep the proportion of the student body was in double digits. After: “By 2009, Hunter’s demographics were radically different—just 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, according to the New York Times.”
It’s this problem that sets the essay going, and this is just the beginning, because to make his case the author will have to explore not just the influence of test prep but how the principle of meritocracy developed and changed, and explore other concepts that are either related to or support it, such as Mobility and Difference.
Okay, that’s the first example. Here’s another to get you thinking about what a thesis is. To summarize I claim that a thesis is a statement of a position and the arguments in support of that position. Consider April Glaser’s opinion piece in Wired magazine titled Students Who Push Tech Boundaries Should be Encouraged Not Punished. This is a classic “position is in the title” essay. As readers, we don’t need to ask what the author’s position is. In addition, the arguments are pretty easy to anticipate: why “should students be encouraged” and “why they shouldn’t be punished.” A good reading strategy would be to look specifically for these arguments and the evidence and appeals the author uses to support them.
An Argument Framework: Problem, Position, Arguments, Evidence and Appeals
Unfortunately, the author never really fulfills the promise of the title. She provides a few loosely related examples that “presume” to act as relevant evidence: Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Mark Zuckerberg. She writes: “Armed with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and state-level computer crime laws, prosecutors could have forced Zuckerberg, Allen and Gates to face a threat of serious jail time.” Here’s the context, according to the author:
Close calls and potential run-ins with the law were part of the patchwork of experimentation in university communities that led to the creation of some of the world’s largest technology companies. Harvard reprimanded Mark Zuckerberg for “breaching security” and hacking into dorm websites to obtain photos of students for an early version of Facebook. Luckily, the university did not involve law enforcement, but they certainly could have.
And that pretty much ends the evidence part in support of the position. The reader will not really get a full accounting of why laws, reforms, and rules should change and what benefits students will see if whatever innovations are encouraged from students, and so doesn’t have a lot to go on. As a reader, I can come away with agreement in general based on my own knowledge or opinion or I can keep asking–but, well, why should students be encouraged to innovate and isn’t breaking the law breaking the law? If laws need to change, then the author should make as strong a case as possible in support of that position.
Reading critically into the effectiveness of an author’s method assists the reader in making decisions about what they should do in response to a position and, importantly, teach us how to be more effective as writers.
I’ll use another example about the thesis and how to deal with it in reading. Suzanne Bates, writing in CT News Junkie has an article called Poll Shows State Supports Philosophy Behind ‘Right-To-Work’. No, really, that’s the title. The title itself states what we call a fact: that some poll proves X or Y. Unfortunately, again, this title is deceptive in that it doesn’t really declare the author’s position, which goes: I think “right to work” laws are a good idea. Bates provides some pretty clear argument to support the cause: “Right to Work” is ethical, that “Right to Work” is just plain modern, and that “Right to Work” will be good for job growth.
We can, therefore, rewrite Bate’s thesis: “Right to Work” is a good idea because it’s ethical, good for jobs, and shiny, like all things modern. As a reader I wonder what this has to do with a poll wherein people agree to a philosophy. But we should ask one final question given the idea of the argument framework: position/arguments/evidence and appeals. In terms of job, Bates uses a study to support this argument. She writes:
Connecticut’s job growth is anemic and a right-to-work law could help. According to a 2011 Office of Legislative Research report, right-to-work laws positively influence job growth, while they have no affect on wages (when cost of living is factored in).
Sounds good. But critical readers will do a couple of things. They will click on the provided link to read the “report” themselves to test whether the author is accurately reading the evidence. The critical reader will note rather quickly that Bates leaves a lot out. I quote from the “report” myself, regarding jobs:
Studies show that right-to-work laws have a statistically significant positive effect on employment levels and job creation, including faster growth in manufacturing jobs and lower unemployment rates. This may be because right-to-work laws affect where companies locate and manufacturing plants open. For example, all new auto plants built in the United States in the last 10 years were built in right-to-work states (Cooper, at 25).
However, scholars again caution that other factors could explain these statistics. Historically, the right-to-work states have been more agricultural than the non-right-to-work states. Thus, the growth of manufacturing jobs in these states could reflect, in part, the decline of agricultural jobs as they have become less labor-intensive. In addition, as manufacturing employment has declined, the service sector has grown. They posit that states with a relatively large service sector tend to be less unionized because service workers traditionally have been more difficult to organize than industrial workers (Stevans, at 599).
Bates may be right, but she fails what we call the accuracy test, and, so, she just as well may be wrong. She doesn’t mention that “Scholars again caution” part from the source from which she cites even though it’s “pretty plain as day.” In rhetoric, we call this “plucking the white feather out a white, black, and brown-colored chicken, who’s also a lot of yellow” and calling the chicken white. Writers can interpret the data or the evidence in numerous ways, and they tend to do so as it benefits their case. There are a couple of conclusions to draw here: Bates has a “not so good title.” She has a thesis buried in her essay “somewhere.” She simplifies the evidence to make her position sound more solid than it actually is.
As readers, this is why we have to understand the thesis as a concept. It helps us make decisions. It teaches us how to be more selective about what we should or shouldn’t trust.