Re: Re[4]: grading ourselves to death

Jeffrey R Galin (
Tue, 10 Sep 1996 22:47:21 -0400

On Mon, 9 Sep 1996, Michael Hamende wrote:

Of the many things to which I'd like to respond from your post,
probably the most fundamental was your first comment about power. In it,
you echo Sharon Crowley's statement that "[t]he aim of ancient rhetorics
was to distribute the power that is resident in languages among all of
its students. this power is available to anyone who is willing to study
the principles of rhetoric."

Now, in the time of the "ancient rhetorics" those who were in a position
to study them were in fact likely to benefit from them in key functions of
polis life. And, no doubt, lawyers find similar benefit. But, the power
does not lie latent in the language or rhetorical tropes waiting for any
average person to discover them and then claim control over his or her
life. Lawyering carries with it levels of social authority that does not
reside fundamentally in the language. As I understand power relations in
US culture (I can't speak for others), knowing how to use rhetorical
tropes can help individuals better negotiate relations with others, but it
does not constitute a form of empowerment (which you were implying in your
note). It can serve to trap users as much as give them access to certain
positions of authority. Let's take another look at the Wall Street
example I offered. I have a brother-in-law who graduated from Darden and
is currently working for Goldman and Sacks on Wall Street. He has served
as the source for my example. He would say to you that market pressures
are such right now that top-o-the-line firms have the luxury right now of
chosing from selected pools of applicants. In fact, school recognition
plays a fundamental role. He is in a position to know these things, as he
is the one who interviews many of GS's prospective employees within his

You seem to think that there are no social forces in our society
that affect this mythical power resident in rhetoric. All it takes is one
example of the wall street scenario to disprove your logic.

Later you state: "Rhetoric, language, and critical thinking are
(and should be even more) universal. If students learn them they will
make a significant difference to them as they go about their lives."

I admire your faith Mike, but I guess we just disagree. You would have
made a fine Platonic orator in the time of the ancient rhetorics. But I
have to say, I just don't think the slaves would have believed you back
then. Of course we could argue over what makes a "significant
difference," but you seem to imply it means helping them gain access to
positions of authority. As I said in my previous post, power relations
(not language or rhetoric) are neither universal nor sufficient for
accessing positions of authority. But I'll also argue that language use
is neither universal nor sufficient for accessing positions of authority.

Later still you write: "An educated citizen is better for
themselves and the state." It is writing like this that ushered Hitler
and Stalin into office. And here we get to the traps to which I referred
earlier. At the very same time students are working to harness "power
that is resident in language," others are working hard to harness the
idealistic beliefs in that mythical power as a means of controlling them.
Take a look at the history of any large political movement in the US and
watch these forces in action.

Lastly you wrote: "A rhetorical position that ignores the
well-being of the other to serve only the individual is not good either. .
. . There is no such thing as the isolated individual who does not
interact with others. And our primary method of interaction is through
language. hence language has a certain amount and kind of power."

I never suggested that teaching is a matter of catering only to
individuals. That is a silly position. No doubt we interact through
language, but what you don't seem to realize is that the power does not
reside in the language. Quite the contrary, the language is only the
medium of exchange. The power resides in the hierarchal relationships
defined by cultural standards, which are manifest in language. While we
can teach students not to use discourse that marks them from a less
favored class (hierarchal structures manifested in language), while we can
help students gain confidence in articulating their positions, while we
can help them build confidence in their writing, while we can do all of
these things, and feel genuinely good about them, we cannot pretend to
change the social fabric that confines them. we cannot give them power,
or make it available to them. Power does not exist as such.

All this said, don't worry, I too believe I can have a positive
impact on my students and their lives. I wouldn't love teaching as I do
if this were not the case. To be honest though, I know I will end up as a
footnote for most of my students. "oh yeah, he was the one who had us use
computers." Or, "he pushed too hard, he expected too much." A few
students will remember me. Even fewer will remember what we studied in 10
years. Why not be realistic? Why not recognize the utopian rhetoric when
we see it? And why not challenge the every day assumptions about our
practices that generally go as the normal state of affairs?


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