Equal Time Argument Essay
Throughout your academic career, you'll be asked to write papers in which you compare and contrast two things: two texts, two theories, two historical figures, two scientific processes, and so on. "Classic" compare-and-contrast papers, in which you weight A and B equally, may be about two similar things that have crucial differences (two pesticides with different effects on the environment) or two similar things that have crucial differences, yet turn out to have surprising commonalities (two politicians with vastly different world views who voice unexpectedly similar perspectives on sexual harassment).
In the "lens" (or "keyhole") comparison, in which you weight A less heavily than B, you use A as a lens through which to view B. Just as looking through a pair of glasses changes the way you see an object, using A as a framework for understanding B changes the way you see B. Lens comparisons are useful for illuminating, critiquing, or challenging the stability of a thing that, before the analysis, seemed perfectly understood. Often, lens comparisons take time into account: earlier texts, events, or historical figures may illuminate later ones, and vice versa.
Faced with a daunting list of seemingly unrelated similarities and differences, you may feel confused about how to construct a paper that isn't just a mechanical exercise in which you first state all the features that A and B have in common, and then state all the ways in which A and B are different. Predictably, the thesis of such a paper is usually an assertion that A and B are very similar yet not so similar after all. To write a good compare-and-contrast paper, you must take your raw data—the similarities and differences you've observed—and make them cohere into a meaningful argument. Here are the five elements required.
Frame of Reference. This is the context within which you place the two things you plan to compare and contrast; it is the umbrella under which you have grouped them. The frame of reference may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory; a group of similar things from which you extract two for special attention; biographical or historical information. The best frames of reference are constructed from specific sources rather than your own thoughts or observations. Thus, in a paper comparing how two writers redefine social norms of masculinity, you would be better off quoting a sociologist on the topic of masculinity than spinning out potentially banal-sounding theories of your own. Most assignments tell you exactly what the frame of reference should be, and most courses supply sources for constructing it. If you encounter an assignment that fails to provide a frame of reference, you must come up with one on your own. A paper without such a context would have no angle on the material, no focus or frame for the writer to propose a meaningful argument.
Grounds for Comparison. Let's say you're writing a paper on global food distribution, and you've chosen to compare apples and oranges. Why these particular fruits? Why not pears and bananas? The rationale behind your choice, the grounds for comparison, lets your reader know why your choice is deliberate and meaningful, not random. For instance, in a paper asking how the "discourse of domesticity" has been used in the abortion debate, the grounds for comparison are obvious; the issue has two conflicting sides, pro-choice and pro-life. In a paper comparing the effects of acid rain on two forest sites, your choice of sites is less obvious. A paper focusing on similarly aged forest stands in Maine and the Catskills will be set up differently from one comparing a new forest stand in the White Mountains with an old forest in the same region. You need to indicate the reasoning behind your choice.
Thesis. The grounds for comparison anticipates the comparative nature of your thesis. As in any argumentative paper, your thesis statement will convey the gist of your argument, which necessarily follows from your frame of reference. But in a compare-and-contrast, the thesis depends on how the two things you've chosen to compare actually relate to one another. Do they extend, corroborate, complicate, contradict, correct, or debate one another? In the most common compare-and-contrast paper—one focusing on differences—you can indicate the precise relationship between A and B by using the word "whereas" in your thesis:
Whereas Camus perceives ideology as secondary to the need to address a specific historical moment of colonialism, Fanon perceives a revolutionary ideology as the impetus to reshape Algeria's history in a direction toward independence.
Whether your paper focuses primarily on difference or similarity, you need to make the relationship between A and B clear in your thesis. This relationship is at the heart of any compare-and-contrast paper.
Organizational Scheme. Your introduction will include your frame of reference, grounds for comparison, and thesis. There are two basic ways to organize the body of your paper.
- In text-by-text, you discuss all of A, then all of B.
- In point-by-point, you alternate points about A with comparable points about B.
If you think that B extends A, you'll probably use a text-by-text scheme; if you see A and B engaged in debate, a point-by-point scheme will draw attention to the conflict. Be aware, however, that the point-by- point scheme can come off as a ping-pong game. You can avoid this effect by grouping more than one point together, thereby cutting down on the number of times you alternate from A to B. But no matter which organizational scheme you choose, you need not give equal time to similarities and differences. In fact, your paper will be more interesting if you get to the heart of your argument as quickly as possible. Thus, a paper on two evolutionary theorists' different interpretations of specific archaeological findings might have as few as two or three sentences in the introduction on similarities and at most a paragraph or two to set up the contrast between the theorists' positions. The rest of the paper, whether organized text- by-text or point-by-point, will treat the two theorists' differences.
You can organize a classic compare-and-contrast paper either text-by-text or point-by-point. But in a "lens" comparison, in which you spend significantly less time on A (the lens) than on B (the focal text), you almost always organize text-by-text. That's because A and B are not strictly comparable: A is merely a tool for helping you discover whether or not B's nature is actually what expectations have led you to believe it is.
Linking of A and B. All argumentative papers require you to link each point in the argument back to the thesis. Without such links, your reader will be unable to see how new sections logically and systematically advance your argument. In a compare-and contrast, you also need to make links between A and B in the body of your essay if you want your paper to hold together. To make these links, use transitional expressions of comparison and contrast (similarly, moreover, likewise, on the contrary, conversely, on the other hand) and contrastive vocabulary (in the example below, Southerner/Northerner).
As a girl raised in the faded glory of the Old South, amid mystical tales of magnolias and moonlight, the mother remains part of a dying generation. Surrounded by hard times, racial conflict, and limited opportunities, Julian, on the other hand, feels repelled by the provincial nature of home, and represents a new Southerner, one who sees his native land through a condescending Northerner's eyes.
Copyright 1998, Kerry Walk, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
One of the stated goals of the creationist movement is to pass “equal time” or “balanced treatment” laws, which would mandate that public schools teach creationism alongside evolution in science classes. Their argument is usually that it is only fair to present both as options and let the students choose for themselves, and that to do otherwise constitutes unfair discrimination against their religious beliefs.
Superficially, these arguments may seem convincing. After all, tolerance is certainly a good thing, and what could be more fair than to let students make up their own minds? However, these reasons aside, there are several excellent reasons to consider such laws dangerously misguided. To teach creationism in public schools as science would confer upon it an air of legitimacy which it has not earned and does not merit.
First of all, it should be said that neither I nor any reputable scientist would ever advocate excluding any legitimate scientific rival to evolution from the classroom. When there is a genuine scientific controversy, students should absolutely hear both sides of the issue, and neither should be taught dogmatically. Academic fairness and intellectual honesty demand no less.
However, merely saying that a controversy exists does not make it so. The fact of the matter is that, among practicing, qualified scientists – the only group whose opinions are relevant when it comes to whether there is a scientific controversy – there is overwhelming support for the theory of evolution. Creationists who have any degree or relevant expertise in the biological sciences are a tiny, insignificant minority compared to the vast majority of scientists who have no doubt that such a process occurred, and that the assertions of creationists are factually incorrect. In scientific circles, creationism has been unambiguously defeated; it was replaced by evolution over a hundred years ago and has been the topic of no serious scientific research since. No papers are published on it in mainstream peer-reviewed journals, no positive evidence supports it, and no new innovations or discoveries have ever come about as a result of it.
Creationists argue that it is only fair to give both evolution and creationism equal time, but this is not true. What would be fair would be to give equal time to every theory that is scientifically valid and supported by evidence, and since only one theory, evolution, fits those criteria, that is exactly what is done. If more than one theory could meet these requirements, it would indeed be fair to teach them all, but this is not the case.
Consider a parallel: the controversy over the occurrence of the Holocaust. The vast majority of historians consider it the undeniable truth that Nazi Germany instituted a program of deliberate genocide that resulted in the deaths of between five and six million Jewish people. However, a small, vocal minority insists that this evidence is misinterpreted or forged, and that the Holocaust either did not occur or occurred on a far smaller scale than mainstream scholarship believes. Does the existence of these contrarians mean that there is a “controversy”? Should we teach both views in history classes so that students can make up their own minds about whether the Holocaust happened? That would be only fair, wouldn’t it?
It is true that public schools should be in the business of creating independent thinkers, not in indoctrinating their students; but neither should they be centers of political correctness where every view is presented as if it were equally as valid as all the rest. To tell students that evolution and creationism are equally plausible, when the scientific community overwhelmingly rejects this, is to give a deceptive illusion of balance, and this is doing them a severe disservice. It is misrepresenting the views of the scientific community and telling students that we cannot decide between opposing views and that the opinions of experts are no more relevant than the opinions of any other group. This is precisely the wrong message to send if we want to create educated people who can tell the difference between truth and falsehood.
In addition, there is a simple constitutional argument: equal time laws, or any other policy mandating the teaching of creationism, violate the separation of church and state. Creationism in all its forms is not science, but religion; therefore, to teach it as science would be an unconstitutional government endorsement of a particular faith. On this point the courts have agreed, repeatedly ruling against the creationists and striking down “balanced treatment” laws as unconstitutional. See here for specific examples of such cases.
Finally, there is the fact that instruction time in school classes is severely limited. Given this unavoidable restriction, it is crucial to only teach ideas that have been tested and accepted by the scientific community – something which creationism has conspicuously failed to do. Evolution has the benefit of a hundred and fifty years of scientific research and support, while creationism has nothing comparable. Lacking this background of evidence, teachers presenting a “balanced view” of creationism would only be able to sketch out its basic ideas – a task of a few minutes. But if equal time were truly required for both ideas, they would then be forced to skip over the huge quantity of evidence in evolution’s favor and present only its basic ideas as well, creating an entirely false impression that the two were equally well supported. Of course, this is exactly what creationists want.
On scientific grounds, creationism has failed. This is why creationists have sought to do an end run around the process of scientific validation and instead force their ideas to be taught through political lobbying and legislation. If creationism were supported by the evidence, there would be no need for laws mandating that it be taught – scientists everywhere would acknowledge its merit, and there would be no argument about including it in school curriculums, but this is not what has happened. If the creationists are so confident, why not present their ideas in peer-reviewed scientific journals and let people with the proper training and expertise evaluate them? That they avoid this most obvious of challenges, and attempt to make uneducated young students, rather than qualified experts, the judges of their ideas’ merit speaks volumes.
In the end, “equal time” laws are a disastrously bad idea, an attempt to legislate creationists’ ideas into public schools when they have been falsified in the scientific arena. To protect the separation of church and state, and to encourage scientific reasoning and critical thinking skills in the next generation, they must inevitably be rejected. If creationism is to be taught in public schools, let it be taught in the one place it belongs: a comparative religion class.