Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

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Cherishing Study in the Humanities

The pendemic, and now the bean counters, are coming for the humanities. 

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Recent news reports have asserted that students in the fields of language, the arts, the social sciences and history have come through the pandemic with less enthusiasm for their studies, at least in relation to those in STEM sciences and vocational majors like accounting. But can there be any surprise that the pandemic’s disruption of learning communities would take a big toll on learning that is usually collective, intimate, and interactive?  The humanities thrive on direct engagement. Now it appears that the inadvertent theft of these forms by COVID has been devastating.  As with a recent piece in the Washington Post, bean counters seem to be taking particular pleasure in seeing American universities become trade schools.

But surely it will take time for the wounds of COVID isolation to heal. We have been missing what was once the vast array of classroom discussions, plays, concerts, and travel that survived, if at all, mostly in the truncated form of video facsimiles. Of course, the first task through this pandemic was to save lives and keep individuals healthy. But for those Americans who were on track to delve into deeper understandings–through live performance, the discussion of history and ideas and personal mentoring–the inadvertent loss of direct engagement has predictably yielded greater caution. It has lowered the horizons of students to “focus on courses that are practical.”

The humanities—fields of inquiry ranging from history to languages to literature and the arts—thrive when open and eager minds can share the same space. It’s our birthright to be with others. For students this means being in the presence of a wonderful instructor in any field that creates insight about what is possible and what’s at stake within human communities. The humanities remind us where we have been and where aspirations made visible can still take us.

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Living among a community of scholars offers the gift of shared experience with perhaps 10 or 15 students, all beginning the voyage of a semester-long conversation about the work of groundbreaking creators of ideas.  We may never get a better chance to be connected to big ideas that that matter than participating as student with a writer or thinker with revelatory insights. There may be ways to electronically simulate a meeting of minds. But most of these efforts are more performative than enlightening. Communication works better when folks share the same space and time, and when small things like momentary non-fluency or uncombed hair doesn’t matter.

Disturbingly, stretched parents are having second thoughts about spending money on any undergraduate curriculum that offers a palette of experiences larger than is required to do a single job. Their concerns are abetted by nearsighted reporting in our media, with headlines like “College Majors With The Lowest Unemployment” or “College Majors With The Worst Return On Investment,” and the Post’s recent “The most Regretted College Majors.” So we have the pandemic-hastened conversion of higher education into vocational training.  It is sad to see universities close programs in writing, philosophy, performance studies, history, foreign languages,  music, dance, theater, journalism and rhetoric. Never mind that they have missed the more subtle point that a degree in history or philosophy may cultivate wonderful skills needed for innovative work. Writer Julie Schumacher reminds us what her English students can accomplish: “Be reassured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express.”

In these times, we should worry when electoral losers brood over dark ways to return to power.  Weakening the humanities is akin to disarming voters who need to put up a full defense of democratic values.  Among many other things, they would benefit by knowing why Plato and his great student Aristotle parted ways on the usefulness of public opinion. We can’t afford to not have the humanities, which collectively help us understand why we should want to be part of a great and ethical society.

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Regaining a Capacity for the Rigors of Dispute

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We seem increasingly comfortable shunning forums that allow advocates time to develop their contrasting views.

There is frequent talk about a sharp American divide, with polarized and partisan groups shouting at each other across a wide chasm.  MSNBC analysts fret about the “MAGA crowd” in Congress.  Citing “progressives,” Fox News returns the favor. Anger on both sides spills out on Twitter and comments to countless blogs, news sites and mega-media like the Washington Post.  Even legacy news organizations of all sorts condense ideas to present facsimiles of what the other side has said on issues related to abortion, the behavior of our former President, or what our grade-school kids are permitted to read. Our cultural map looks like an endless chain of Tetons: a landscape of sharp peaks that leave little room to sit astride a place that would allow a view of all sides.

Part of our current dilemma is our withering sense of how to engage in a civil society. Various media platforms have made it easy to carve out connections with mostly like-minded others, leaving us underprepared for the work of making coherent arguments to those with different views.  In place of the agora—an ancient place where the public met and interacted as one body—we now see others mostly at a distance, via the narrow shooting galleries of media opinion makers with platform-specific ideologies. In the process, we’ve lost all or most of our abilities to sustain a discussion made of fleshed-out arguments and counter-arguments.

As noted in these pages several years ago, an argument can take many forms. But its basic structure is simple,  containing at least two parts: (1) An assertion or claim and (2) supporting evidence or good reasons. In schematic terms it can be laid out like this:

Claim: American Elections are Mostly ‘Clean’

(Evidence:  Because. . .)

    I. There are few documented cases of modern election fraud.
   II. Nearly all recounts confirm the original result.
  III. Election officials from both parties rarely find fraud.

That’s it. In its most basic form, an argument is an assertion supported with statements of proof to back it up: perhaps expert testimony, representative examples, solid research, statistical summaries, and so on.  By itself, the asserted claim is not enough, unless it is so obvious that no one would disagree. But we are focusing here on consequential assertions that others have doubted or denied. For these, we must relearn a basic tenet of civil affairs that a claim by itself is insufficient.  Repeating the same claim does not make it true.

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For example, consider the claim that “the 2020 presidential election was stolen.” If someone stops there–using a formal term of argument—it lacks “force.” To be sure, we are only too happy to display our opinions like flags. They signal our attitudes and beliefs. And we have a knack for mistaking variation of the same assertion as “evidence.” But controversial assertions alone have no logic to bind the open-minded.  That can only come when someone cites relevant evidence–logically tested by the insertion of the word “because”–using a source that is worthy of belief. When the assertion and the evidence flow together as a coherent argument, we are beginning to build a reasonable case.

It’s not enough to take aim on the true believers via the shooting gallery that fires out disparaging names. This short and convenient solution of using ad hominem language (i.e., “The fools who have made a career out of claiming election fraud are motivated by money and fame”) lacks force.  Ad hominem comments attack an advocate rather than their ideas. While we get pleasure out of calling our ideological opponents clowns, the rewards are self-serving, substituting personal invective for ideas that should be able to stand up in a democracy’s ‘the marketplace of ideas.’

Ironically, we generally shun the obvious format that allows for adequate public testing of ideas.  Simple debates where opponents speak, and then are given enough time for follow-up and offer refutations, can help those who want to understand what the preponderance of evidence supports. A true debate does not need a newsperson gumming up the works by turning the process into a joint interview. True debates only require two or three advocates, a moderator to keep things on track, and a clock that controls for equal time.  Using this format, the debaters soon learn that they will have to add substance to their claims: they know they will need “good reasons” more than more repeated opinions.

Schoolkids easily learn and enjoy this format. They like to document their views with evidence. In past years, programs of straight debates used to run on PBS (The Advocates and Firing Line, to name two).  But now we mostly choose to live in echo chambers that let us hear variations of our own views.

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