Notes: Todd DeStigter, “On the Ascendance of Argument: A Critique of the Assumptions of Academe’s Dominant Form”

DeStigter, Todd. (2015). On the ascendance of argument: A critique of the assumptions of academe’s dominant form. Research in the Teaching of English, 50(3), 11-50.



DeStigter critiques the fundamental assumptions behind the overemphasis of argumentation as an ideal in the teaching of writing, drawing on three semesters of ethnographic research in Tejada High in Southwestern Chicago.

Keywords: critical pedagogy, literacy, literacy changes, literacy studies, pedagogy, teaching of writing


Walkerdine, Valerie. (1990). The mastery of reason: Cognitive development and the production of rationality. New York: Routledge.


“Again, if this paradigm sounds familiar, it’s because the privileging of argumentation indicates widespread acceptance of the assumption that truths established by reasoned argumentation correspond to ‘real’ truths, thereby positing argumentation as a cognitive ideal” (p. 17).

“I worry that in our professional conversations a new divide theory has emerged–one that posits an intellectual dichotomy not between the literate and preliterate, but between people who can write what is sanctioned as a rational argument and those who can’t” (p. 19).

“However, merely shifting the rationale for privileging argumentation from noumenal to the phenomenal realm does not eliminate the problem that whatever is designated as “good thought” is revealed through rational arguments is determined by people who are in a position to make and enforce such designations” (p. 19).

“However, as my responses to these theorists suggest, in order to believe that argumentation has inherent cognitive and social value, one must reassert the autonomous model and strip language uses from their ideological bases and consequences. One must bracket the notion that such value is not predestined in human nature or the organizing principles of the universe, but is discursively produced. One must, in other words, create a world of intellectual and communicative hierarchies and then forget that we are its creators. Unfortunately, in such a world it is also possible to forget that, in most arguments, the person with the most power just has to say, ‘Your argument is unreasonable,’ and he wins” (p. 20).

“First, in order to assert a reciprocal relationship between argumentation and democracy, one must ignore the fact that people have unequal access to power that would enable them to participate meaningfully” (p. 22).

“Second, history and current U.S. politics are replete with examples of how rational arguments supported by overwhelming evidence get trumped by ideology. Because there is no neutral ground where individuals can converse unencumbered by their values and prejudices” (p. 22).

“Third, it seems only reasonable to insist that even though argumentative skills don’t guarantee access to political deliberation, lacking such skills virtually ensures that a person will be excluded…. However, this insistence that argumentation is a necessary (albeit insufficient) requirement of political agency dismisses substantial evidence that the most effective forms of democratic participation emerge not from rational argumentation but from identity and class-based solidarity” (p. 23).

“Fourth, tying democracy to rational argument greatly restricts the kinds of thought and action considered permissible in the public sphere” (p. 23).

“To be sure, Bourdieu makes clear that cultural capital plays a role in reproducing social and economic privilege. But this is not the same as saying that cultural capital produces social and economic capital for those who don’t already have it” (p. 27).

Questions, Reflections, and Response:

I found myself saying “Werk!” quite a bit reading this piece. This is one of the first pieces I’ve read in secondary ed scholarship. I believe these assumptions that DeStigter sheds light on in secondary ed have a lot of resonance in the ways that many of us teach first year writing in the college level as well–which I suppose relates to looking at the teaching of writing as a k-16 enterprise instead of a separation between secondary and post-secondary ed.

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