essaying to persuade
July 21, 2010 11:31 AM   Subscribe

What are the best and most interesting persuasive essays of 2009-2010?

I'll be teaching freshman composition again in the Fall, and am working (as usual) on updating my course syllabus, adding some new essays into the mix. We'll be reading and discussing a range of essay, both as examples of technique and as potential points of departure for students' own thinking.

Essays should be accessible to to a general reader (no particular thematic focus this time), and of reasonable length (magazine-article length pieces are generally preferable to book chapter ones).

I'd like to leave this question open to whatever essays you think would serve as interesting examples of persuasive writing; in my course I typically make a point of assigning some essays that begin with or refer to the author's personal experience, and others that don't employ any first person perspective. I'm especially interested in essays that manage to present their subjects in a new light, or that make arguments that are important but are about subjects that are a little bit unfamiliar (although if you'd like to mention especially good but conventional argument, feel free to do that as well). Essays that make a very specific policy argument are good, and so are those that work to raise a broader question.

I'm aware of the "Best American" and "Best Nonrequired" anthologies, etc.--I'm looking for your suggestions for particular essays that you've read in the last few years that you found interesting and well-executed.

Many thanks for any suggestions.
posted by washburn to Education (11 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

This may not be what you're looking for, but this Washington Post article by Gene Weingarten (about parents who leave their children in locked cars, accidentally killing them), won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in the category of "Feature Writing" and has stuck with me ever since I read it. It has been mentioned on the blue several times before, and though I'm not sure it fits especially well into the category of "persuasive essay," I think it's a hell of an article and it made me re-examine my opinions about the way our justice system treats these very tragic cases.
posted by Zephyrial at 12:07 PM on July 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Mark Lilla's The Tea Party Jacobins has gotten a fair amount of attention (including on the blue). I doubt whether the essay caused many people to make a radical change in the way they saw the subject, but I think it qualifies as "presenting its subject in a new light."
posted by lex mercatoria at 12:23 PM on July 21, 2010

I also thought of suggesting the article Zephyrial links to, but I thought of the same point about how it's not straightforwardly "persuasive." You could say it's a persuasive essay in favor of not penalizing parents who accidentally kill their children.

If you do use that article, since you're interested in the choice of whether to use the first person, I would add a revelation that Weingarten didn't include in his article but revealed in the intro to a follow-up Q&A on the Post's website:
Any writer who claims to be completely unbiased is lying either to you or to himself; we are humans, we have opinions and prejudices, we hold certain assumptions about life. The absolute best we can do -- and it is usually enough -- is to make an honest effort to prevent those opinions, prejudices and assumptions from hijacking our words. As it happens, I went into this story with an overwhelming empathy for the parents whose inattention led to the deaths of their children. I believed it could happen to anyone, and I believe that because it almost happened to me. Twenty-five years ago, I almost killed my daughter.

In the early 1980s I was living in Miami, working as an editor for the Miami Herald. I got to work by car, driving down Biscayne Boulevard, then hanging a left at the Herald building. This routine seldom varied; when it did, it was when I had morning daughter duty, meaning that instead of turning left, I turned right, got on a highway, and drove a few more miles to the daycare center.

One day I turned left, made another left, as customary, and pulled into the Miami Herald parking lot. As I searched for a space, from the back seat, Molly said something. She was almost three. Until that moment, I'd had no memory at all that she was in that car.

I can't recall if, like many of the parents in my article, I was particularly stressed that morning, or mentally lost in some problem from work. I know there was no distracting cellphone conversation, because cellphones hadn't been invented. What I retain of that moment is the indelible memory of staring slack-jawed at the little girl in the backseat, and feeling a powerful rush of physical nausea. This was Miami in the summer. Molly would not have survived fifteen minutes in that car.

I sat there breathing heavily, fighting for self-control. I probably forced a smile and said something cheerful and dad-like. And then, as though nothing at all had happened, I left the parking lot and headed for the highway. No harm done! Just the start of an ordinary day!

You may have a question. I'll answer it simply. No, something like this does not go away. It haunts. Six years after that day, I wrote a play. It was about a man who had who had accidentally caused grievous injury to someone else; there was a backstory, about a baby left to die in a car.

When the news broke last summer about the death of Chase Harrison, I knew I had to write this story, whether I really wanted to or not. Like actors, writers know that genuine emotion is a valuable asset to draw on, not one that you lightly discard. If this article seemed to be presented with more restraint than some of my other magazine cover stories, it is probably because this was the end result of a writer fighting for a sense of control.

One more thing, before we get to some of your questions. I did not tell my wife about that moment in the parking lot, not for years, not until half a year ago when I began working on this story and needed to explain why it was keeping me awake nights. And I didn't tell Molly about it until just a couple of months ago; oddly, I found that 25 years after the day no harm was done, I couldn't look her in the eye.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:29 PM on July 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

The Best American Science Writing series of books (essay collections) comes to mind. "Best American" could be a larger series across other topics, too.
posted by Ky at 12:30 PM on July 21, 2010

Or I could finish reading the OP before posting, yeah.
posted by Ky at 12:31 PM on July 21, 2010

I can't tell if it's hip, ironically hip, or far too "mainstream-hip" (to actually be hip) to cite a Malcolm Gladwell article, but I thought his piece on the similarities between dogfighting and pro football was extremely persuasive:

Also: check out They list recent (and not-so-recent) articles that appear to be the length you want, some of which are very good.
posted by johnchristopher at 1:02 PM on July 21, 2010

Whoops, hello links:

Gladwell article: Offensive Play

posted by johnchristopher at 1:04 PM on July 21, 2010

I've long loved Michael Pollan's "Why Mow?":
Another day it occurred to me that time as we know it doesn't exist in the lawn, since grass never dies or is allowed to flower and set seed. Lawns are nature purged of sex or death. No wonder Americans like them so much.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 6:17 PM on July 21, 2010

Marilyn Robinson's Absence of Mind
posted by Mertonian at 6:43 PM on July 21, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! These are fantastic essays, many of which could be very useful in the classroom. is also new to me, and seems to be a repository of all sorts of worthwhile writing.
posted by washburn at 12:18 PM on July 23, 2010

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