Rhetoric developed out of 5th-century BCE to help citizens plead their cases in court. The designers–teachers, really–were known as the Sophists. Their teaching of rhetoric was a response to social and economic change. Athenian democracy included landholding aristocracy, a tiny percentage of the populous. As a merchant class grew wealthy, they demanded the same political and social rights as the aristocracy. The Sophists filled the need to train this new group of citizens to participate in open debate. In this realm, rhetoric was a tool to participate in democracy.
A century later came Socrates. He modeled questioning and probing as the way to pursue depth of knowledge. He had several objections to the Sophists: 1) rhetoric doesn’t pursue truth; 2) it casts a spell over its audience; 3) dialectic is the path to truth. His political objection to the sophists was that audience were persuaded to act through opinion not truth.
Then another century later came Aristotle, the pragmatist. He did not see the issue as an either/or. “Rhetoric is the counterpart to Dialectic.” Put teacherly, Aristotle argued that dialectic is necessary to discover and develop an argument; rhetoric is necessary to help shape our arguments.
During the Roman empire, Quintillian took this model of instruction and expanded it across the empire to teach all citizens how to participate in the political realm.
I give this overview at the beginning of my junior-level rhetoric class as a way to contextualize what we are doing. Yes, this class is about reading and writing arguments, but we do so to reason; we do so, to pursue the truth.
It is indeed a lofty hope, and a hard pursuit not just for students or teachers but all human beings. My current majority-liberal students are in a cross-state collaboration with majority-conservative students. To be thoughtful and equanimitous with peers who possess differing values is a challenging cornerstone of democracy, one that most now avoid by choice or by force. In either case, segregation is the root.
Last year, my first year at West Seattle High School, I worked with dozens of seniors who wanted to do rhetoric and not the dialectic. They knew their opinion and they wanted to express their opinion, and many had no real interest in the give-and-take, the qualifications, the truculent evidence that research and discussion would engender. As I reflected on in this previous entry, the year with them was fraught, and not ultimately very progressive.
Those seniors arrived to me carrying the instruction they’d received for several years, instruction that I gave to students. “Here’s your claim. Here are your reasons. Back up each reason with two pieces of evidence. Analyze each piece. Tie it together.”
While it efficacious to teach with such structure, it also the risks that concerned Socrates: this effort does not pursue truth. Furthermore, this style of writing often does cast a spell over the audience: the spell of boredom.
One underlying issue of opinion-based arguments is that we are asking the wrong questions. In the worst case, we aren’t asking questions at all.
Jennifer Fletcher’s Teaching Arguments provides a helpful framing of different types of questions. She goes back to the Greeks and argues there are four main types of questions. These questions are Stasis Theory.
- Question of fact: Did something happen? Is it real? What is its origins?
- Question of definition: What is its nature? What are its parts? How is it classified?
- Question of quality: What is its quality? Is it good or bad? Helpful or harmful?
- Question of policy: What actions should be taken? How can we make things better?
*Search “stasis theory” online and you’ll find numerous resources.
In an exercise that I use, she has students read this editorial by David Brooks and determine what question he’s answering:
-Question of fact: Can competitive virtues coexist with cooperative virtues?
-Question of fact: What is the reason for the enduring popularity of the Olympics?
-Question of definition: Is dance a true sport?
-Question of definition: Is an acceptance of opposites a characteristic of intelligence?
-Question of quality: Is it good to embrace the tension between contradictions?
-Question of policy: Should the Olympic Games be less competitive?
Even without reading the text, each of these questions is interesting and invites discourse. Each question also requires different levels and types of evidence. Some need the support contemporary events. Others the support of syllogisms. Others you’d support with domain-specific examples.
Having students think through what question a text is answering is a productive teaching move. Having them think about all the possible questions out there about a particular topic is a step toward open-minded citizen.
Thus–and this message is for me as much as any teacher out there–I implore teachers (for the sake of Socrates if no one else!) to provide time and space to generate and explore a universe of questions. While this dialectical phase may not feel “productive,” it is one step toward ensuring the rhetoric that follows is worth reading
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