Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Underlying agonism in the rhetorical tradition

In Composition in the Rhetorical Tradition, Ross Winterowd states that the crucial split for English studies occurred when Aristotle’s “real world” philosophy diverged from Plato’s idealism, creating the “two roads” of the empiricist-idealist dialectic. More recently, in his study on the influences of this philosophical divergence on writing pedagogy, James Berlin has implicated this empirical/idealist schism through his contention that many teaching practices are based on divergent and coexisting approaches which have created competing and mutually-exclusive pedagogies. These beliefs, which continue, unexamined and misunderstood in English programs, cause what Berlin calls “confusing pedagogies,” which I suggest are created because writing teachers aren’t aware of the contentious history that lies behind the work they’ve chosen.

The rhetorical tradition lies in the agonistic, aristocratic Athenian pedagogies of Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle, who, as members of what historian and political scientist Josiah Ober calls the Athenian “educated elite,” were trained in eristic, a method of philosophical debate popular among aristocrats comfortable with verbal sparring.[i] Eristic, with its warlike metaphors, became part of a traditional rhetorical education. After a protracted period during which rhetoric was forced to change its name or relocate to various university departments,[ii] it has, over the past fifty years, reemerged as a pedagogical tool within English studies.

With rhetoric’s reemergence comes the question of how to integrate its politics of aristocracy with the material reality of today’s nontraditional and often disenfranchised student (or teacher). What had traditionally been a method of constructing persuasive discourse for ‘enlightened’ orators has been adapted for students who need to find a job. There are those who may not be able to understand the need for an education that has traditionally reified ancient divisions between aristocrats with the power to make policy, and the common person who must follow that policy. Because traditional constructions of rhetoric seem increasingly aligned with all that radical and democratic pedagogies must abandon if previously excluded communities are to consider themselves welcome at the university, the field of rhetoric must now discuss these politicized binaries, even if they cannot be resolved. These power binaries lie at the heart of the many difficulties inherent in a rhetorical education, so it is timely and necessary that educators who rely on rhetoric as a pedagogical tool take up this discussion and make it their own.

Students who wish to write but believe they cannot are too often prevented by societal constraints that tell them, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that this form of expression is denied to them. These are social forces that educators like Mike Rose, Mina Shaughnessy, and Paolo Freire have committed themselves to trying to counteract. It is because of their work, and the work of James Berlin and so many others who have inspired my questions, that I was tempted to try to find answers. Instead, what I found are connections and possibilities that I cannot prove empirically, but can only point to as indicators of teachers’ and students’ limiting beliefs and behaviors. Knowing that students rarely consider themselves writers is frustrating, but not surprising. However, my frustration caused me to ask why these limitations exist, and how they are perpetuated.

[i] Given the hierarchical structure of higher education, egalitarian ideals and elitist practices coexist uneasily at the university. Although the liberal arts’ tradition is inherently elitist, post-WWII expansionist economic ideologies encouraged increased access for the American masses to higher education. This practice has fostered the belief that the concomitant education received is based on liberal democratic principles of fairness and equality. However, the form of liberal democracy that privileges individual rights is at odds with the conservative view that education exists to foster civic responsibility. The power imbalances governing educational practices forces teachers to exist in an environment that asks them to behave democratically while at the same time they maintain ethical and moral standards that reflect the inherited elitist, agonistic, and exclusionary practices of Ancient Greece.

[ii] Cf. James Berlin, esp. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985, and Sharon Crowley, Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alison-

    I very much enjoyed reading this post. It was very well written and I learned a lot from it. I'm at the end of an incredibly hectic semester and am mulling lots of issues with self-perception in my sutdents.

    Amethyst Wells-Mendelssohn


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