The relationship between the study of rhetoric and the development of virtue or an ethical sense has been debated since classical times.
A3. In writing classes today, how might a perception that studying rhetoric will lead to virtue manifest itself in pedagogy? You may draw on your experience as a teacher and/or student, as well as our class discussion.
From the times of early Greek sophists through the past century, rhetoric has been yoked with virtue. In the study of Plato’s Phaedrus, Richard Weaver sums up that “rhetoric at its truest seeks to perfect men by showing them better versions of themselves, links in that chain extending up toward the idea, which only the intellect can apprehend and only the soul have affection for” (Weaver, 82). As teachers, or future teachers of rhetoric it is not only our duty to ensure that our students have a fair comprehension of the term, but that they would be able to master the identification and application of virtuous rhetoric in their own lives. It is our hope, too, that they would desire this knowledge and therefore be active participants in the classroom. It is possible to instill in our students this desire by “showing them better versions of themselves” through the use of rhetoric in their own lives.
Rhetoric is a semantics mechanism that is both perpetual and constantly changing. It is omnipresent in any culture and any language which uses oral, written, or symbolic communication. The elements of this mechanism are as numerous as the elements of language itself. It cannot be punned down under any one definition, and we can find a literal dictionary of meanings of the term “rhetoric”. Although it may limit the scope of the subject matter of this essay, I will provide a generalized definition of the rhetoric being taken into account here. Kenneth Burke defines rhetoric as “the art of persuasion, or a study of the means of persuasion available for any given situation” (Burke, 46). Further, Xing Lu adds that it is used “for the purpose of changing thought and action at some social, political, and individual levels” (Lu, 2).
The subject of virtue in rhetoric is seen most in the Greek translations, although they did not generally use the term “virtue” explicitly; it was implied, however, throughout the writings of Greek sophists such as Plato, Aristotle, and Isocrates. Plato provides us with a four-fold system for virtue:
“For wisdom is chief and leader of the divine class of goods, and next follows temperance; and from the union of these two with courage springs justice, and fourth in the scale of virtue is courage” (Plato, Bk. 1, 631).
This system may be very helpful in the pedagogy I will mention later. Aristotle spoke much on the virtuous use of rhetoric. One thing to take note of here is that the translations available to us of these sophists’ speeches vary in their interpretations. Aristotle, for instance, spoke in such complexities that the discussion on virtue is often translated in great elaboration. In his speech Nicomachean Ethics, (book 6, chapter 12) he says that we are each born with natural virtue, and when it is used in rhetoric it comes out as practical wisdom. However, smartness is also an outcome of rhetoric, though this term refers to one who is not virtuous in their method of persuasion.
“There is a faculty which is called cleverness; and this is such as to be able to do the things that tend towards the mark we have set before ourselves, and to hit it. Now if the mark be noble, the cleverness is laudable, but if the mark be bad, the cleverness is mere smartness; hence we call even men of practical wisdom clever or smart” (Aristotle, Bk.6).
Both of these explanations of virtue in rhetoric can be a terrific launching pad in critical pedagogy.
In terms of practical classroom application, we must first identify the type of pedagogy being used, the level of education we’re teaching, and the overall subject matter being taught. Ideally, a teacher would be using a student-centered pedagogy outlined in Ira Shor’s Empowering Education. “The teacher leads and directs this curriculum, but does so democratically with the participation of the students, balancing the need for structure with the need for openness. The teacher brings lesson plans, learning methods, personal experience, and academic knowledge to class but negotiates the curriculum with the students and begins with their language, themes, and understandings” (Shor, 16). This approach not only encourages students’ active participation, but relies upon it; it requires them to invest a certain level of interest in the subject matter, rather than being mere passive receptacles for memorization. In a student-centered classroom, the subject of rhetoric would likely flourish because of the countless directions classroom discussion can take.
If I were a tenured professor of an undergraduate level composition class, my approach to the subject of rhetoric would begin with practical application. One day of class might look something like this:
I would begin by providing two or three quotes from current writings to give a broad definition of the term “rhetoric”. (The purpose here is that this is not a term used in everyday life, and few students would be able to come up with a proper definition of their own.) Next, I would have the students write about where they have seen or heard rhetoric being used. To follow the ensuing discussion of their writings, I would ask them to write a definition of “virtue” in their own terms. After hearing some of these examples aloud and coming to a consensual definition, we would break into small groups to identify whether the examples of rhetoric could be considered virtuous of not-virtuous. Each group would share one or two examples with the rest of the class, allowing for open disputes or debates. For a specifically academic theme in their discussion, I would provide the class with applicable excerpts from Greek sophists, such as the ones quoted above. The students would then be encouraged to have more group discussion on how the use of rhetoric as virtuous has changed from then to now.
My hope with this exercise would be to gain the interest and curiosity of the students in regards to rhetoric. By showing this change over time, they will be able to see that rhetoric is still alive and well, used in everyday life and even used by the students themselves. By studying and learning the endless facets of rhetoric, they will be able to be much more critical and deliberate in their use of and susceptibility to persuasion. In the same way that the “age of reason” brings them into an understanding of right and wrong, so will the education of the binary of rhetoric-virtue teach them to understand the complexities of rights and wrongs in the media and every other aspect of their cultural and relational experience.
Looking at Western, Indian and Chinese classical rhetorics, we can see both similarities and differences.
B2. Most of the Western rhetoricians we’ve read propose and approach to education. Based on these, how would you generalize a traditional Western approach? Reconsidering the Chinese, Persian, and Indian texts may help to highlight what is “Western.”
Education in the U.S. has seen a significant amount of change over the past two centuries. While much of this change has been beneficial to the general populace, it is now becoming clear that the educational institution has been designed to ensure that the differences in race, class, and gender in our society are maintained. Aside from this ideological dissonance, we can also observe assumptions in our multicultural studies as well as in the dominant pedagogy in the classroom.
The societal dissonance in Western educational philosophy is rooted in the historical changes in the school system over the past two-hundred years. To summarize this change, we will focus primarily on higher education. The first universities in the U.S. were designed by and for elite white males for the purpose of educating doctors, politicians, and clergy. Over time we saw changes in this system with the expansion of curriculum into areas of additional sciences and arts. We also saw the acceptance of women and students of color as professors and students. By the 1960s, the face of education had changed dramatically, and the first open-enrollment program was initiated. From this came the Basic Writing and Basic Mathematics courses, among others, which were referred to as “Remedial.” These were designed as filters to ensure that the “mainstream” classes did not suffer from lowered standards. However, the ideas of “remedial” classes and “standards” have seen little-to-no changes in the past fifty years. It is strongly believed that the current academic hierarchy is one of the main elements contributing to the economic hierarchy and the cultural dissonance mentioned above. Ira Shor states that, “For the status quo to remain what it is, the economic system needs a high dropout rate and a flow of some lower-class climbers up the ranks” (Shor, 109). Today, the argument is a strong one in light of an economy that is already suffering the financial and occupational pains of a recession.
To relieve the pressure from activists trying to change the systematic oppression in the schools, primary, secondary and higher education school districts have incorporated a range of multicultural classes into their curriculums. (Granted, the curriculum usually stands apart from the “traditional” curriculum that has been taught for generations.) While this seems like a step in the right direction, let’s look at a few misconceptions in multicultural education. Much of the following will be taken from Xing Lu’s Rhetoric in Ancient China, and will be used as a basis for all non-Western cultural studies in the West. A primary mistake is that, “Western intellectual discourse on Eastern cultures suffers from Orientalism…. A Western projection of political dominance and academic authority in relation to the Orient” (Lu, 16). In the context of multicultural education, we can call this Orientalism “Other-culturalism.” The pride of Western philosophy leads us to believe that our language and rhetoric is superior to that of any other culture. Because of this linguistic pride, we study the rhetoric of other languages under the assumption that English is the only language that is “systematic and orderly…. Scientific and rational” (Lu, 16). This leads us to a second mistake. In multicultural studies, “The interpreter’s own cultural assumptions, values, and concerns are used as the framework and basis for understanding and interpreting other cultures” (Lu, 22). In order to fully grasp the concept outlined here, I refer to cooking egg rolls. We, as a Western culture studying Chinese rhetoric, are like cooks who are trying to make egg rolls using pasta dough, vegetables, and olive oil. While the end result may look a lot like an egg roll, it will taste like something else entirely. What we need to do, academically-speaking, “is to interpret the culture on its own terms, adopting the view and language of the target culture, and describing situational and contextual meanings specific to the culture” (Lu, 23). In other words, use wontons, not pasta dough.
Multicultural education is useful in the sense that it provides awareness of non-traditional subject matter that is now as much a part of Western culture as any traditional subject matter. However, we are still upholding a clear segregation of the two curriculums by way of the narrow and exclusive literary canon, as well as by our dominant pedagogy. From a young age as students, we are treated as silent and empty vessels, needing to be filled with education by way of lectures and worksheets. There are many terms for this pedagogy: teacher-talk, direct instruction, teacher-centered, frontal pedagogy, etc. Giambattista Vico describes one reason for the preference for teacher-talk:
“We devote all our efforts to the investigation of physical phenomena, because their nature seems unambiguous; but we fail to inquire into human nature which, because of the freedom of man’s will, is difficult to determine” (Vico, 33).
He brings up a real and valid weakness that many teachers feel: fear. Teachers find themselves intimidated be their students’ freedom. “Some teachers lack the experience, maturity, or support to allow their students freedom” (Shor, 102). Teachers want to stand behind the system that has created a barrier between them and their students, to be protected until retirement. And unfortunately, Western education has created that system.
Change comes at glacial speed in education. In the past few decades we have seen more and more focus on changing the dominant pedagogy, to allowing students that freedom of expression that is the highway to critical thinking. Western education is being changed, and can only be changed, one teacher at a time.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 350 B.C.E. Trans. W.D. Ross. 1994
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950.
Lu, Xing. Rhetoric in Ancient China Fifth to Third Century B.C.E. A Comparison with Classical Greek Rhetoric. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Plato. The Laws. 360 B.C.E. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. <http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/laws.6.vi.html>
Shor, Ira. Empowering Education. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Vico, Giambattista. On the Study Methods of Our Time. Trans. Elio Gianturco. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.
Weaver, Richard M. Language is Sermonic, The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970.