Isn’t Everything Rhetorical?

Like the force in Star Wars, it’s everywhere: Rhetoric!

While rethinking my junior and senior English courses this year in a straight-block schedule context, I’ve been struggling with how to balance unity and diversity as well as breadth and depth in the curriculum, hopefully having an engaging, knowledge-rich impact on students that will aid their long-term flourishing. I’m finding my stockpile of varied sources on rhetoric helpful for these improvement endeavors.

TEDEd’s Rhetoric 101 conveys what could be a one sentence-lecture about rhetoric: “Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is the art of seeing the available means of persuasion.”

The power of rhetoric as a theme to organize high school curriculum, instruction, and assessment comes as no surprise to many classical educators. Their patron saint Dorothy Sayers identifies rhetoric as the third stage of student development, especially applicable to the teen years in terms of student readiness and building upon the grammar/detail-learning and logic/connection-making stages of earlier years.

Rhetoric gets a bad rap due to the political food fights that leave some of us just a bit ashamed of the adults vying for leadership in our society. Indeed, discussing these embarrassing examples has a place in a thoughtful study of rhetoric with our students. Classical and contemporary rhetorical resources can help us do so in helpful non-partisan ways.

We might also compare our contemporary political rhetors to those in previous ages to find some equally embarrassing examples: Adams vs. Jefferson for starters? (This is but one of many places where my colleague Ryan can take the hand-off and exclaim, “Everything is historical!” as rhetoric helps us coordinate our disciplines.)

With my junior-level English course this semester, we’re exploring the means of persuasion from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr. This past week we started to consider how Arthur Miller’s The Crucible critiques Joseph McCarthy’s Red-Scare rhetoric through disturbing analogies to and echoes of the Salem Witch Trials. In doing this, we’re encountering two levels of rhetoric: the author’s and the characters’.

Although far from perfect, this approach has helped us examine how authors and characters attempt to persuade their audiences for various purposes. The focus on rhetoric and literary art is proving useful for Death of a Salesman, Hamlet, and other texts as well.

Since this is the season for college application essays, I’m adapting a more intentional approach to coaching rhetorical purpose and strategy with my students. As with considerations of everything rhetorical, we also consider issues of honesty, authenticity, and credibility while developing these essays. In turn, students are asking themselves really good questions such as, “Why do I really want to go to college?” and, “Is this major (or gap year, etc.) something I should pursue?”

So, whether we’re thinking of our own paths and purposes or those of literary and historical characters, ethical questions complement questions about various means of persuasion.

Is everything also ethical?

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