New Yorker writer Vinson Cunningham joined a panel of Spence juniors and seniors to discuss the history and craft of argumentative writing at this year’s Head’s Forum, “Arguing in the Public Sphere.” Grades 11 and 12 parents as well as faculty also participated in this year’s lively and informative conversation, which was organized by the English and World Literature Department.
“The exchange of ideas is the magic of the evening and the DNA of a very strong liberal arts education,” Head of School Bodie Brizendine shared in her opening remarks as she explained the history behind Head’s Forum, a program she created 12 years ago to increase the exposure of Spence juniors and seniors to stimulating and provocative topics.
English and World Literature Department Head Sara Beasley shared that she and her colleagues looked for a Head’s Forum speaker, “who would inspire us to think about the power of the written word.” “In Vinson Cunningham, we found a beautiful voice: wise, curious, deeply perceptive.”
In addition to his work at the New Yorker, Cunningham previously worked on President Barack Obama’s campaign and served as a staff assistant at the White House during his administration. He has also written for a variety of publications, including Times Magazine, the Times Book Review, Vulture, The Awl, The Fader and McSweeney’s.
“By tackling subjects that can be difficult to talk about, Mr. Cunningham’s writing fearlessly and unapologetically provides the jumping off point for our conversations,” said Dory N. ’20 while introducing Cunningham.
“Today, I’m going to argue in favor of arguments,” Cunningham shared as a part of his keynote focusing on the importance of argumentative writing in public discourse. “Even though it seems like argument and rancor and discord and disagreement are the sources of some of our problems as a human community, arguments of the right kind might also contain…the seeds of solutions.”
According to Cunningham, argumentative writing has a long and rich history in the United States, dating back to before the country’s founding and emerging out of American oratorical traditions. As the Puritans made their way from England to Massachusetts in 1630, Puritan leader John Winthrop gave a sermon to fellow passengers called “A Model of Christian Charity.” The structure of his speech had many similarities to modern argumentative essays, Cunningham explained.
Cunningham added that Winthrop cited textual evidence from scripture to encourage his fellow passengers to work together upon their arrival in North America, despite stark class differences between them. Winthrop’s argument was effective because of “the things [listeners] had in common,” Cunningham said, adding that Winthrop’s use of Biblical text strengthened his premise because he and his fellow Puritans shared deeply held religious values.
Today, finding common ground to develop an argument is trickier, Cunningham shared, noting that unlike the societies of our predecessors, there no longer exists one text that everyone has in common, particularly thanks to the advent of technology and social media.
“One of the problems I see is that we’re making arguments based on different premises,” Cunningham emphasized. Argumentative writers today “don’t just make arguments,” Cunningham added. “We create a new ground to argue from.”
A speech in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution given by Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968, is one example of how modern writers can successfully “reknit” the threads of history to establish mutuality for an argument, Cunningham said.
In arguing to, “abolish discrimination among the sexes,” Chisholm’s speech, “referred back to our founding fathers, our Constitution, things that ought to give us ground upon which we can build some edifice of agreement,” Cunningham shared.
Our country’s founders, “did not assure [rights for] their daughters as they tried to do for their sons,” Cunningham read from Chisholm’s address to Congress. “The Constitution they wrote was designed to protect the rights of white male citizens, as there were no black founding fathers, there were no founding mothers…. It’s not too late to complete the work they left undone.”
Cunningham emphasized that Chisholm’s speech made a compelling case for change by “[uniting] the common and the particular.” That is, she extolled the virtues of our shared American history while simultaneously highlighting its shortcomings, particularly as they applied to the new perspectives offered by her generation.
In the Q&A portion of the evening, student panelists Lydia G. ’20, Tiesa G. ’20, Gaby P. ’20, Indira T. ’20, Anna G. ’21 and Imogen B. ’21, as well as members of the audience, asked about what Cunningham’s work argues and whether every piece of art/writing should have an argument.
“The existence of something is an argument for something,” Cunningham shared. “I think there is an argument, or at least a statement of value, intrinsic in all art, but I don’t think that every poem, every novel has to sharpen at the end towards some didactic point.”
As for the arguments in Cunningham’s own writing? “I hope is that I can continue to assert the importance of the humanities and the arts in informing consciousness,” Cunningham said, noting that art, theater and sports play an important role in how people engage with the world.
“We derive values from all the things that give us beauty.”
The mission of the Head’s Forum is to increase the exposure of Spence juniors and seniors to intellectually stimulating and provocative topics. Grades 11 and 12 parents and Spence faculty members also join students in the discussion and exchange of ideas. With the goal of examining the complexity around a variety of relevant issues, the Head's Forum provides a platform for speakers to represent multiple sides of an issue in the context of honest and open discussion and debate. The opportunity to experience how experts in a given field grapple with ideas, argue their point of view and support their stance with evidence and examples will broaden students’ vision of the world.