I was teaching my students about idea generation in regards to writing, using a student-friendly version of TIME magazine called TIME for Kids as my source. I explained that one of the best ways to generate a writing topic is to find a piece that you find objectionable and write the counter-argument. And if you can take a position rarely taken by others, you might really be onto something.
In order to demonstrate, I began flipping through the magazine and seeking counter arguments to the articles and the opinions presented. Eventually my eyes fell upon a piece about an elephant rescue camp in Africa.
“Here’s something,” I said. “The people working at this camp are trying to save elephants from extinction. But could you take the opposing position? Could you argue that elephants should be allowed to die out? After all, they are at the top of the food chain, with no natural predators, and they are not carnivores, so it’s not as though they serve to control any other animal population. If elephants went extinct tomorrow, would there really be a problem?”
Now I was on a roll.
“And couldn’t the money being spent keeping elephants alive be better used? Couldn’t we protect an animal more vital to the food chain? Or to save human lives instead?”
The kids were now staring at me in horror.
“And besides, the dodo bird went extinct. Other than its sentimental value, has the world really suffered from its absence? And what about the passenger pigeon? Or the giant tree sloth? Or perhaps most appropriately, what about the wholly mammoth? Does the world really need the wholly mammoth? And if not, why not get rid of the elephant, too?”
Naturally, I don’t believe anything I said, but I thought it was a good illustration of how a writer can adopt a contrary position for the sake idea generation, and how it is perfectly reasonable for a writer to argue a point that you don’t necessary believe.
And who knows? I may not believe what I had said, but I did find myself legitimately wondering what purpose elephants serve in the food chain and how much money is spent keeping them alive.
Sometimes an academic exercise like this can yield a genuine contrarian viewpoint.
Before I was able to explain to the kids that I did not really want the elephant to go extinct and that this was simply an illustration of idea generation, one of them muttered, “Maybe he should go extinct.”
I train them well.