The loss of rhetorical education

In my previous two articles I have discussed the “Slander of rhetoric” occurring in media articles on the Internet.  A related phenomenon is the gradual erosion of rhetorical education at the postsecondary level.

I believe that the denigration of rhetoric in society is happening in part because “good rhetoric” has become so invisible and unmentionable due to the widespread loss of formal, systemic rhetorical education throughout many countries’ educational systems.

Many people don’t even know when they themselves are using rhetoric anymore, largely because they don’t know anything about its broader definitions, its history and theory.

“No, I’m not using rhetoric. I’m just writing an article.” “No, I’m not using rhetoric, I’m just managing a company” or “I’m just a mayor. Or a scientist. Or an engineer.

Um, I’m pleased to inform you that yes, you are using rhetoric, you just don’t see it because society has hidden “good rhetoric” from you by refusing to name it as “rhetoric” where it is in action in your life and profession. You haven’t been taught to recognize good rhetoric.

Let’s consider how invisible good rhetoric has become, and how its invisibility is associated with the idea that all rhetoric is bad.

  • Consider how controversial rhetoric itself has become, and how people are expected to distrust all things called “rhetoric.”
  • Consider why it is so hard to consider one’s own communication as rhetoric, and why a good politician can never survive long if they admit they are using rhetoric.
  • Consider how easily convinced people are even by false or divisive arguments if they imagine that they are merely “simple, clear communication,” and that rhetoric is entirely absent.

Lesson 1: If you can make people believe that it is possible for plain, simple communication to exist without any rhetoric, you make people imagine that they don’t need any specialized rhetorical education at all. Communication is easy: All they need is knowledge. But if you remove support for rhetorical instruction, you also you remove the training that enabled people to identify and defend themselves against bad and deceptive rhetoric wherever it is found.  We now call for “media literacy”?  Bad rhetoric is not caused by new media or any media. Bad rhetoric is bad whether it’s delivered orally or in a book or on Facebook.

Lesson 2:  Make good rhetoric invisible and don’t label it where it exists, and people won’t see how beautiful or useful it can be. They will become blind to their own good use of rhetoric and the potential for improving it. As a result, over time, good rhetoric shines less often, and when we see it, it may be thought of as rare and miraculous, or natural and inborn, or attributed to other causes, rather than seen as an art that can be acquired and polished through study and reflective practice. The rhetoric of good leaders has become invisible as rhetoric, and we are left with self-help books, travelling inspirational lecturers and short-term organizational workshops on good leadership or good professional ethics, and tips and tricks on how to deploy new media technologies.

If rhetoric was taught in your local schools and colleges, would parents and leaders discourage students from majoring in the subject?  Oh wait, a great number of parents and citizens have already have begun to discourage students from enrolling in Liberal Arts majors, so it’s not a hypothetical argument. This is based on the wrong assumption that rhetoric has nothing to do with starting a good career or being a good leader of a city, nation, or a good professional communicator.

Dear reader, did you learn the historical arts and theories of “rhetoric” as a subject in high school or university?  Did you engage in rhetorical criticism of advertisements, news, or public speeches or documents by applying rhetorical theories to them? If you did, lucky you, you are a rare person to receive such a liberal education that enables you to be an active, discerning citizen and producer as well as consumer of rhetoric, regardless of your profession or walk of life, and  no matter how society and communication technology changes.

If you are an average person in Europe or North America (with the exception of United States, where you can still find many introductory college courses that teach rhetoric), you likely just learned bits and pieces of rhetoric spread over courses like English, History and Social Studies, but you likely never got immersed in rhetorical study itself to any degree, and it was likely not called “rhetoric” like it was for centuries before.

What happened to rhetorical education? I can only write knowledgeably of what happened in England and North America and here I can only give a superficial summary of a complex transformation. Rhetoric became part of popular culture in the 18th century as more and more people (including women) became literate and middle-class professionals with access to rhetorical forums. Rhetoric was no longer the holy grail largely reserved for the gentleman and ruling elite, but was everybody’s business. But as it was popularized and “updated” to fit an industrializing society, rhetoric was cheapened and often simplified into prescriptive how-to formulas. It became fragmented as it was applied narrowly to more and more specific genres, media, or professions. After the era of George Campbell in the late 18th century, when broad instruction and philosophy of rhetoric in general had finally achieved a place on almost everyone’s home bookshelves and lending libraries, rhetoric gradually fell out of fashion as an advanced study of high social and academic status.

At the postsecondary level, the growth of two new disciplines, English and Communication, gradually filled what little remained of rhetoric’s traditional academic territory. These new disciplines have had many “rhetorical” concerns, but have not entirely embraced the study of rhetoric itself. Rhetoric has often been reduced to an aspect of one or two courses in their curricula, usually introductory courses, and has often been subsumed within the study of academic writing or public speech. Even those courses are coming under suspicion as it is increasingly assumed the need for explicit communication instruction ends at high school or first-year college, and thereafter good communication skills are acquired by osmosis while studying other things or learning on the job.

I did not receive a rhetorical education in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, even though I studied at university and majored in English. I stumbled upon rhetoric myself after my Master’s degree as I tried to discover the roots of the good, powerful, persuasive aspects of language I was interested in, and I had to move to the US to study rhetoric at the PhD level. I was explicitly warned by English professors that if I studied rhetoric I would move the the lowest rung of the discipline and in effect be treated as a janitor rather than scholar (my father was employed as a janitor so I understood that as a class-based insult). I have learned by experience that my experience of education is not uncommon across Canada and Europe. I’m not sure about South America, but it might have suffered a similar loss to its educational system.

Sigh. I do think we lost a lot by sinking the reputation, identity and name of a huge, ancient discipline and rich and useful body of subject matter.

To avoid this current false negative stigma against rhetoric, rhetorical instruction often must render itself invisible or engage in disguise.  Courses that still teach “rhetoric,” where they exist, often have to be named “communication” or “speech” and are sometimes associated with professions and college majors that currently have high status by being called courses in “Business communication” or “Engineering communication” or “Science communication.”

I teach just such a course in “Professional and technical communication” that involves rhetorical analysis of public professional communication artifacts (i.e. organizational websites and public reports) and uses rhetorical principles to teach students to engage in logical, research-based arguments and effective report-writing.  Nobody would know from the name of the course that it is teaching rhetoric, so we get to continue doing it without opposition, for now.

But the invisibility of rhetoric means its days are numbered in academia.  It’s hard to hire new permanent faculty members with expertise in rhetoric if you don’t have sufficient courses with the “R” word in their titles.  I’m the last research professor in rhetoric in my department.  People imagine you can hire anyone to teach writing or speech, but new media has mystique and requires special PhD level experts to teach it.

Why should rhetorical education be such a rare, hidden relic?  Why should it have to be disguised and renamed in order to survive?  The loss of formal rhetorical education and our reluctance to name it as “rhetorical” disconnects it from its long, rich, proud and public history.  This shame of rhetoric where it still exists goes hand in hand with increasing ignorance of rhetoric’s essential utility in civic life and organizations and the increasing spread of bad rhetoric.

Rhetorical education, when it was firmly institutionalized, used to shine the light of inquiry on rhetoric, both good and bad. By allowing rhetoric to die off as a discipline, we let that light of inquiry fade, until the art of good rhetoric fell into darkness. Rhetoric gradually became a fiction and mystery, and wherever it existed, it was not acknowledged as “rhetoric” but fragments of it were identified under other names. Good rhetoric became seen as the result of all other kinds of causes: economic development, individual psychology, the scientific method, etc. By letting good rhetoric become invisible it became fragmented as an art and discipline.

Dame Rhetoric has lost her long-tenured professorship in most of the schools of Western civilization. It is not impossible to imagine that partly as a result of this, or in concurrent development with this trend within academia, outside of academia the arts of Demagoguery and Mass Propaganda have flourished. The increasing attention on bad rhetoric in the media shows that many are surprised, aghast or spellbound by her power she has attained over large groups of people. Inevitably many will thirst after the power she has gained in society through unethical and unreasonable methods, though they won’t admit it to themselves or to others.


4 thoughts on “The loss of rhetorical education

  1. I’m in New Zealand and we never had any instruction in rhetoric at school – and only heard about it years later. At University I went on to study engineering, however not long after graduation I started self-studying this rich and vibrant subject in my own time. It’s absolutely fascinating. I’m currently working through parts of “Practical elements of Rhetoric” by Dr. John F Genung. Learning the categories of invention. I also partake in Toastmasters where I like to experiment exercising what I learn.

    I enjoy your blog, it must rank among the most value-adding blogs for sure. Your blog is appreciated.

  2. Thank you for your kind comments! I appreciate hearing your perspective from New Zealand and I’m glad you’re honing your skill via Toastmasters. Rhetorical skill is something Cicero honed his whole life. I am also surprised and pleased you’ve come upon Genung’s text, a late 19th c. work I rarely hear of anyone reading. But then I read rare older rhetorical texts all the time and continue to find present value in them.

  3. Thank you for your reply Dr. Smith. May I ask what other older, rarer texts you read that are publicly accessible?

  4. I read a lot of Classical rhetorical works translated in the 19c and earlier, which are available on Google Books if you customize your search to only show full, free texts, or texts published before a certain date. These are likely to be available there or elsewhere online: Institutes of Oratory by Quintilian, Cicero’s De Oratore, Tacitus’s Dialogue on Oratory, Plato’s dialogues Phaedrus and Protagoras, Isocrates’ Against the Sophists and To Nicocles. In addition, some 18c and 19c works are very interesting while showing the unique rhetorical issues of their era, like Gilbert Austin’s Chironomia, George Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric, Joseph Priestley’s A Course of Lectures on Rhetoric.

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