Berlin, _Rhetoric and Reality_

Berlin, James. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985.Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987 (189 pages)

Chapter 1: Overview

Though Berlin’s central focus is on the ways rhetoric has been threaded in both writing instruction and the English department more broadly—in the process, he also sees the ways that rhetoric (“the production of spoken and written text”) and the poetic (“the interpretation of texts”; 1) have shaped the teaching of literature and writing. In discussing rhetoric, Berlin notes the necessarily plurality of epistemologies that include “a variety of incompatible systems”; Berlin seeks to outline the varying epistemological assumptions undercutting rhetoric: the different systems that define “the nature of reality, the nature of the knower, and the rules governing the discovery and communication of the known” (4). Berlin also, like “Rhetoric and Ideology”, sees rhetoric and ideology intimately related: “Ideology will simply refer to the pluralistic conceptions of social and political arrangements that are present in a society at any given time. These conceptions are bsed on discursive (verbal) and non-discursive (non-verbal) formations designating the shape of social and political structure, the nature and role of individual within these structures, and the distribution of power in society” (4).

Berlin, then, offers three epistemological categories within rhetoric:

  1. Objective Theories: “a positivistic epistemology, asserting that the real is located in the material work. From this perspective, only that which is empirically verifiable or which can be grounded in empirically verifiable phenomena is real. The business of the writer is to record this reality exactly as it has been experienced so that it can be reproduced in the reader” (7). (See: current-traditional rhetoric). Unde this epistemology, invention is not a key concern (because truth is located in the material world), but the focus on reproducibility of content to an audience emphasizes the need for language to be precise thus instruction is likewise focused on arrangement and “superficial correctness” (9).
  2. Subjective Theories: “locate truth either within the individual or within a realm that is accessible only through the indivudual’s internal apprehension, apart form the empirically verifiable sensory world” (11). (See Plato). The role of teachers, here, is deemphasized since truth is located in private contemplation and often cannot necessarily be communicated (unless in poetic methods such as metaphor). Writing can be learned, but cannot be taught—the role of audience (or community) is meant to support an individual’s authenticity, but is not the focus of such an epistemology.
  3. Transactional Theories: “an epistemology that sees truth as arising out of the interaction of the elements of the rhetorical situation: an interaction of subject and object or of subject and audience or even of all the elements—subject, object audience, and language—operating simultaneously” (15). Have taken three major forms: classical (truth is socially constructed and thus rhetoric deals with probable—science is outside of the realm of rhetoric, then); cognitive (truth the engaging with material and social environemtn—a focus on prediciting writing activity); and epistemic (“all experiences, even the scientific and logical, are grounded in language and language determine their content and structure” (17)).

Chapter 2: The Nineteenth Century Background

Berlin looks at the late 19th century which marks an interesting rise and ultimate fall of rhetoric’s status for writing instruction and the emergence of the relatively new focus on poetic within English departments. Succinctly, “The fall from grace of the college rhetoric course was thus the result of the convergence of a number of elements. The attempt to improve the status of English Department members, the establishment of the study of English literature in the college curriculum, the shift in language of learning in college, the new entrance exams in English, and even the establishment of the new public high school all played a part in changing the nature of writing instruction in colleges” (24). Despite the poetic and the rhetorical enjoying a common epistemology, a schism began to shift where poetic aligned rhetoric into a more positivist identity whereby the emergence of the current-traditionalist epistemology emerges: “literacy critics within the English department have appropriated as their domain all uses of language except for the narrowly referential and logical. What remains—a trivial and baron concern at best—is given to rhetoric, to the writing course. Thus, current-traditional rhetoric, with its positivistic epistemology and its emphasis on superficial matters of arrangement and style, continue to be the officially sanctioned rhetoric o the English department” (30).

Chapter 3: The Growth of the Discipline 1900-1920

As Berlin writes, where the establishment of MLA in 1883 solidified English Studies’ legitimacy as a scholarly endeavor, NCTE—emerged in 1911—“[maintained] the discipline’s commitment to students” (32). But there were still varying approaches to the teaching of writing; in particular, he outlines three major approaches (paralleling his earlier epistemological approaches of objective, subjective, and epistemic):

  1. Current-traditional rhetoric: “knowledge in all areas of human behavior could be readily discover and validated through the scientific method” so language is taught to be correct and precise in order to reproduce knowledge in the mind of the audience. Championed at Harvard
  2. Rhetoric of liberal culture: an approach to teaching writing in opposition to a democratic approach. Here, individual genius and creation of art. This more elitist approach saw writing only valuable to teach to those who were gifted: “the writing cultivated in this rhetoric thus valued the individual voice, the unique expression that indicated a gifted and original personality at work” (45). Championed at Yale.
  3. Transactional rhetoric for democracy: precursor to a fully epistemic approach, this rhetoric is rooted in the constitutive nature of language and material reality. This approach is marked by “its ethical commitment to the public good” and preparing the masses for public participation and civility.

Toward this last point, the Great War (WWI) seemed to emphasize a writing course’s ability to “make the world safe for democracy and America safe for Americans” (57).

Chapter 4: The Influence of Progressive Education: 1920-1940

Between this period, American Progressivism began to bleed into the realm of education. Progressive education is marked by both its embrace of scientific ways of knowing as well as recognizing students’ individual selves. It also focused on the “well-being of society” and the fostering of a civil body to occupy and maintain an effective democracy. Further during this time were duel and opposed conceptions of education: “one psychological and individualistic and one social and communal” with John Dewey attempting to find the dialectical synthesis between the two (60). Like previous eras, this one was further categorized into a current-traditionalist rhetoric, one of liberal culture that then lead into a expressionist rhetoric, and social rhetoric. The current-traditionalist rhetoric of this era emphasized the measurement of particular, objective features of writing; i.e. the superficial correctness of language such as grammar, spelling, sentence structure, etc. Like the previous era, there existed a rhetoric of liberal culture—an elitist homage to genius and literature—but this lead directly to a democratic, expressionist approach to developing voice and discovering self. Finally, the social rhetoric approach was tethered directly to the economic crisis of the 1930’s. In particular, writing courses were seen as opportunities for students to explore their local communities’ social, economic, cultural, ideological standing.

Chapter 5: The Communication Emphasis: 1940-1960

In the years after both the Depression and WWII as well as in light of Sputnik in 1957, American education saw the need for a greater focus on education, initially of course on math and science, but also an emphasis on language and composition (and literary arts to a lesser degree). This sentiment resulted in the emergence of the communication course whose purpose was to focus on, primarily, skills-based communication—in this way, it was very much aligned in some ways with a current-traditionalist rhetoric (particularly at the University of Iowa), but there were elements of epistemic rhetoric whereby the course delved into a general approach of cooperation as opposed to competition (which was seen as contributing against a “world state”) (101). Though short-lived, the communication class lead directly into the formation of CCCC.

Berlin also discusses the relationships between writing and literature; writing and linguistics; and writing and rhetoric: each relationship became redefined in these era. Literature, in particular, was still seen as a preferred content of the writing course—it’s poetics were seen as ethical exemplars for students that would rid themselves of habits counterproductive to society, civility, and democracy. Linguistics—particular with the rise of General Semantics—emerged as a counter to current-traditional content as well as literary content: it focused on grammar but in a mathematical, articulated structure. Finally, there were still others who rooted composition in the historical precedent of rhetoric, particularly in two classes: those of Plato and those of Aristotle.

Chapter 6: The Revival of Rhetoric: 1960-1975

In a debate about whether college composition should be abolished, Kitzhaber—among other arguments—argued that it should not be abolished, but the content should changed toward a “New Rhetoric” much like New Grammar (structural inguistics) and New Criticism (of literature). There then emerged two courses under this approach:

  1. Expressionistic rhetoric, emphasizing the limits of language and the importance of the unique point of view manifested in voice.
  2. The second [Aristotelian approach], emphasizing writing as a set of choices growing out of the complete rhetorical context: the writer’s own identity, his subject, his purpose and his audience.

Chapter 7: Major Rhetorical Approaches: 1960-1975

See above: objective, subjective, transactional (including classical, cognitive, epistemic)





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