27 August 2009

Rhetoric & English Curricula

I just came across an old Julian Sanchez post about a dishonest debating trick which he calls the "fiat shuffle." (I thought the fiat shuffle was something you did on the way to the mechanic after your Cinquecento breaks down. Rimshot! Cue Ray Magliozzi-esque snorting laughter.)

Now, there’s a problem with the logic of the argument—one that crafty debaters used to occasionally employ on purpose back in my days of collegiate geekery. I used to call it the “fiat shuffle,” and it works like this: You propose policy X for debate. Now, quite possibly X is politically impossible (right now) for one of any number of reasons, but that’s OK, because the folks proposing that we do it get to fiat (yes, among debaters, “fiat” can be a verb) that their proposal could be implemented.

The trick of the fiat shuffle is to then re-import the political barriers you’ve assumed away to argue for your position. So (to pick a round I vaguely remember being in): You propose that kids from affluent schools be required to switch places with kids from poorer schools nearby, and offer as an argument for the program that the more politically powerful rich parents will then be motivated to agitate for improvements in the poorer schools. Except, of course, if they’re powerful and motivated enough to do that, they’d be even more likely to use their influence to block such a program in the first place.
When I say that schools should teach rhetoric, this is the kind of thing students should be taught to recognize. Teaching people to identify and reject bad arguments would do more benefit both them and society than having them snooze through another discussion of Catcher in the Rye.

My sophomore year high school English curriculum was ostensibly focused on public speaking and communication, but that pretty much meant that we read the same books we always did, and wrote the same lame essays, with an over-specified, rigid structure, and then got up in front of the class and read them aloud. We were admonished to maintain eye contact with the audience and use at least three hand gestures. (Yes, they counted gestures, as if gestures were distinct things you scripted in, rather than being organic motions used to help convey the tone of your remarks. And by an "over-specified, rigid structure," I mean I was told how many sentences should be in each paragraph.) No mention of rhetorical devices was ever made, nor were we made aware of tricks such as Sanchez's fiat shuffle. As far as my teachers were concerned there was only one way to make an argument, either written or spoken, and that was one paragraph of introduction, follows by three paragraphs of supporting arguments, each of which contained a single appeal to authority, and then one paragraph of conclusion.

I think the sum total of our education in speech making was a 400 word essay by William Safire* about how language is important, and a highlight reel of some JFK speeches followed by the teacher saying "Did you see that? He was really good at speeches. Probably the best ever. You should all try to learn from him."

* I remember it was Safire because I was shocked at the time to be reading something in my public school by a self-described libertarian conservative. And a former Nixonite, no less! That's pretty scandalous for Montgomery County Public Schools.

PS I have a feeling the JFK highlight reel from my day has already been replaced by an Obama reel. The 10th grade reading list (which I believe is still the year they cover oration) consists of one or two selections from a list of 16 books, depending on level, plus the 1892 feminist short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," plus Obama's victory speech from the 2008 election. I don't actually remember that speech; it was probably well done. I question the wisdom of drawing contemporary politics into the English curriculum, but so be it. I don't object to it as a selection per se, but are the curriculum crafters really claiming it's the best piece of English oration to study? Or are they selecting it even though it isn't the single best example because they feel kids will relate to it better? If that's the case, what's the justification for a 117 year old feminist story about psychosis? That's surely not the most relatable thing. (For reference, here's a Top 100 list of 20th Century American oratory.)

Anyway, I have to say I was actually pretty pleased with this year's reading lists. Which teacher snuck Camus and Sartre on there? Well done. And Hemingway! He was so declasse when I was around. I most shocked by the presence of The Fountainhead on there though. I think opening up any Ayn Rand in the English department office in my day would have caused at least one stroke.

When I was around these summer lists were abysmal. I think the only book I read for school over the summer that I liked was Alas, Babylon. In addition, Isaac's Storm was mediocre. The rest were terrible. The record during the school year wasn't much better in terms of finding books I actively liked, but I also tended to have fewer I actively hated. I think the sum total of books I was assigned to read in school that I liked consists of Macbeth, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie, and The Great Gatsby. I was also required to read Julius Caesar in a Latin class, and From the Earth to the Moon and Hot Zone for middle school Science classes. Classes that weren't English exposed me to 60% as many good books as classes which were English.

I'm now entirely off topic, so I'm signing off.

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