23.2.09

Lanham definition of rhetoric; the Aim of Education(s)

I need to remember this somewhere, why not the blog. Now you can remember it, too.

"Rhetoric" has not always been a dirty word, the opposite of sincerity, truth, and good intentions. For most of its life it meant the training in expression, spoken and written, that you need to play a useful role in human society. It became a dirty word in the seventeenth century, when science, trying to describe the world of stuff, wanted to abolish the distortions of human attention structures. Human communication ought to be like the United Parcel Service, an efficient mover of information boxes from one destination to the other. This model for human communication gains its power from its narrowness, but we need a wider model for an attention economy. Information does not come in simple neutral boxes and its distribution is a more complex matter altogether. We need a more capacious conception of human communication, one that can accommodate the full range of human purpose.

All the more do we need it because the digital computer has created a new expressive space. The screen works differently from the page. Words don't stay put. They dance around. Images play a major role and they move too. Color is everywhere. And sound, too, spoken and synthesized. Above all, a different expressive economy prevails. The printed page depends on an economics of deprival. No color, no movement, images in careful moderation. All these sacrificed to create an expressive field that encourages concentration on conceptual thought. It is a monopolistic attention economy, directed from the top. The digital screen depends on an economics of plenty. It allows competition between word, image, and sound for attention. It is a market attention economy, driven from the bottom. You can map onto these two contrasting expressive spaces all the arguments about top-down versus bottom-up, planned versus market, economies. Market economies, like the political democracy that accompanies them, demand a full-range conception of human communication, the kind a rhetorical curriculum has always provided. And this new rhetoric will have to be built on the digital expressive space as well as the printed one, and teach how to move easily from one to the other

I have been writing and thinking lately about how badly we need to re-articulate the purpose of education. The social demographics and cultural conceptions of higher education have changed greatly over the last 50 years. Higher education is no longer the elite privilege for an elite few. It should no longer frame itself as such; yet Kant's ghost still drives much of the work we do, it still emphasizes the public/private obligations of the scholar, still protects the scholar from public interaction, still--to capture Lanham--fetishizes a print preference for the neutrality of information. It still aims to produce scholars.

I realize, clearly, now that I have no interest in producing scholars (at least at the undergraduate level). I remember Nathaniel Rivers, Ryan Weber and I sharing a similar reaction to Whitehead's description of undergraduate education in "Universities and their Function" (circa 1829): "wow, that sounds like grad school." And that is where scholars should be produced: graduate school.

My interest in undergraduates is to produce citizens. I like Lanham's definition, those ready "to play a useful role in human society." Notice this definition says nothing about the creation of knowledge. This isn't to say that citizenship cannot involve aspects of scholarship. But I am calling for us [rhetoricians, English faculty, humanists, humans--let the pronoun stretch as far as you want it to go] to reassess why we do what we do. I think the difference in not only technology, but also culture and history, will lead us to very different answers than what Kant and Humbodlt argued for several hundred years ago.

Then again, I just watched The Flock of Dodos, and that shit is scary. But, as the movie suggests, perhaps if Kant had trained his scientists to be a bit more rhetorically saavy with audiences outside the Universities walls, this wouldn't have happened in the first place.

4 comments:

Casey said...

I hear you. I actually hear a looming crisis way off on the horizon involving the definition of citizenship. Personally, I believe that about 10% of people are capable of learning enough--or if you prefer, becoming sophisticated enough--to determine the outcomes and structures of government. Nevertheless, democracy envisions total participation... is it possible that the role of "lower education" (maybe we say pre-graduate-school education) is to produce people who are willing to keep believing they're active agents in the process when really they are being steered like... well, like steer, by the 10% of us who are initiates?

Either that or else we need--I'm not yanking your chain, here--to serious reconsider our commitment to the idea of democracy. Why do we believe it's the least-bad form of government? How do we know that? Has our fear of tyrants outstripped our appreciation for noble and intelligent leadership? Is determined mediocrity better than risking evil in pursuit of good?

For the sophist who genuinely believes we are only passing the time in a parlor, the commitment to democracy must be understood to be as arbitrary as any commitment... But you've heard all this before.

Casey said...

(P.S. -- if you start a new school, and want to hire a literature-guru, and pay him $100,000, keep me in mind)

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Wow, did you mean to echo Plato's Republic? Because I've read that first plan before... But you are right--earlier versions of republican democracy upon which our system draws (Roman and Greek), though horribly sexist and racist, did mandate participation. And there was a greater expectation of higher education; although from Plato to Aristotle to Cicero to Quintilian you can find laments over the public's lack of education.

I guess I don't see such a crisis, since I think the education that younger generations receive via MTV (yes MTV) and other such (socially liberal) cultural media will probably mean that my perspectives win.

That assumes that our growing economic debt leaves us with something other than a wasteland. But I guess we should stick to one problem at a time.

On a side note, Burke promoted democracy because of its lack of expediency. Democracy wastes a lot of time--and therein lies its virtue. Humans shouldn't do anything rashly. Slow things down, make us squabble, give us time to get over our gut reactions.

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