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Argument Essay

The following passage comes from “The Common Life,” a 1994 essay by the American writer Scott Russell Sanders. Read the passage carefully and then write an essay that defends, challenges, or qualifies Sanders’ ideas about the relationship between the individual and society in the United States. Use specific evidence to support your position.

A woman who recently moved from Los Angeles to Bloomington [Indiana] told me that she would not be able to stay here long, because she was already beginning to recognize people in the grocery stores, on the sidewalks, in the library. Being surrounded by familiar faces made her nervous, after years in a city where she could range about anonymously. Every traveler knows the sense of liberation that comes from journeying to a place where nobody expects anything of you. Everyone who has gone to college knows the exhilaration of slipping away from the watchful eyes of Mom and Dad. We all need seasons of withdrawal from responsibility. But if we make a career of being unaccountable, we have lost something essential to our humanity, and we may well become a burden or a threat to those around us. A community can support a number of people who are just passing through, or who care about no one’s needs but their own; the greater the proportion of such people, however, the more vulnerable the community, until eventually it breaks down….Taking part in the common life means dwelling in a web of relationships, the many threads tugging at you while also holding you upright.

PITFALL ONE: not understanding the task or the directions
Make sure that you read the passage correctly and understand your task. Don’t get caught up in tangential issues. Figure out what Sanders’s central thesis is. This student had trouble understanding the issue:

For example, when people get caught doing something wrong and they don’t want to admit to their mistakes, they sometimes think of a lie, which is a defense mechanism people use when in trouble. Who hasn’t lied at some time in their lives? The guilt will haunt the lady in the passage who moved to Bloomington, tearing up everything in her life from inside then out.

The example about the woman from Bloomington is not the central issue in this prompt—it is an example Sanders is giving to make his point. An EXAMPLE WILL NOT BE THE CLAIM, it will illustrate the claim. So, to determine the claim think about what point the example supports.

PITFALL TWO: merely paraphrasing the passage

If your whole essay consists of explaining what Sanders is saying in this passage, you will not score above a five out of nine. Resist the temptation to tell what the entire passage is saying. The readers know what the passage says. {This mistake seems especially common when the argument prompt is longer.} Refer to the claim of the passage in as few words as possible. Unlike the rhetorical analysis, you do not need to quote long sections of the passage—this eats up time and accomplishes very little. Your job here is to figure out and clarify what the central issue is and then to defend, challenge, or qualify that issue.

In this passage, Sanders writes about the relationship between the individual and society. He talks about a lady that moved from Los Angeles to Bloomington, Indiana. She says she would not be able to stay long because she was already beginning to recognize people. Sanders writes that the lady gets nervous when she is recognized. She liked not being known and not having to get involved in that society. Sanders says that a couple of people like this help society run, but if there were too many, society would collapse. Society depends on some people to interact so that it can keep going. {If this were only the introduction, and the student followed up with an assertion that defended, challenged, or qualified Sanders’s assertion, this paragraph would be acceptable, although it’s not necessary to paraphrase this much. But when a paraphrase is your whole essay, you’re looking at a low score.}

PITFALL THREE: not taking a definite stand

This is one of the most common errors students make. You must have a definite opinion and state that opinion unequivocally, even if you are qualifying. And even if you don’t really have that opinion in real life.

Sanders describes the relationship between the individual and society as a contrast. The individual is nervous around a too-familiar society. A society feels threatened by a great number of individuals that are unfamiliar. In a big city, most people become accustomed to unknown people because of the large population. However, in a small town where everybody knows everybody else, a newcomer might be seen as a threat to their way of life. In a small community, most people have their familiar routines. For the traveler, though, it is still a new opportunity for the community. The unknown traveler may be thought of as an alteration to their everyday routine.

The essay above discusses the workings of a small town and a big city and makes some interesting observations about the contrast. The writer, however, never takes a definite stand on whether or not it is healthy to remove oneself completely from society.

On the other hand, this writer takes a definite stand and backs it up with appropriate evidence:

Sanders says that “we all need seasons of withdrawal from responsibility.” There are times when people need to forget about what others expect from them and do only what they feel is needed. (concession) While Sanders’s statements are true, people cannot live a responsibility-dodging life forever. He feels that if people are to do so, “We will have lost something essential to our humanity.” If everyone were to give up their responsibilities and do only what was best for themselves, then society would not function. Organizations would fall apart because people would no longer be able to work together. Eventually our entire government would break down and the nation would erupt into total chaos. The more careless people a community has, “the more vulnerable” the community becomes. Thus, people must learn to take responsibility for themselves rather than dodge it. (assertion)

PITFALL FOUR: using inappropriate or weak evidence to support your position

The strength of your essay is in direct correlation to the strength of your evidence. Weak or inappropriate evidence will produce a weak paper and a low score. The readers are looking for writers who can write logically and reasonably, who can evaluate and analyze someone else’s argument, and who can find the best evidence to convince someone of their position. This student’s evidence has to do with crime rates:

A small town culture is often seen as boring and old-fashioned, but it is just as important to our nation as any of the modern big cities. In New York City people have that opportunity to wander the city anonymously. Perhaps that is the reason why crime rates are so much higher in larger cities. People are far less likely to behave badly if people they know are watching them. This constant concern of others judging you is perhaps more beneficial than some may have you believe. It can get quite nerve-wracking to always be under watch, but those that watch you also come to your aid in times of need. For example, when you go out of town you can ask your ever-watchful neighbors to keep an eye on your house for peace of mind. If everyone went around with a total disregard for others, society would break down and the world would become a terrible almost primal place.

This student effectively supports his position by reasoning that knowing someone is watching you may deter crime. He concedes (another way to reason logically) that it is bothersome to “always be under watch,” but those who watch you also watch over you.

PITFALL FIVE: writing aN analysis of the passage instead of aN ARGUMENT

Your job is not to analyze the way Sanders writes. Your job is to write an argument. Read the prompt. Sanders’s use of diction reveals his negative attitude toward wanderers…. Sanders uses a word with negative connotations when describing the twisting threads…. Sanders was accurate when he said the many threads tug, yet hold one another upright. His metaphor identified individual lives as threads. The metaphor makes the reader reflect to a special blanket or person that brought them comfort, evoking emotional reactions.

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