Sunday, March 20, 2011

On the Redemption of Rhetoric

Kenneth Burke, “the foremost rhetorician of the 20th century” (according to the textbook I then used in teaching Foundations of Rhetoric), wrote of Hitler’s rise to power and said that Hitler’s terrible lie mobilized Nazis not because rhetoric favors evil but because the forces of good were failing to match his discourse.  The way I understand it: good is stronger than evil; but evil empowered with rhetoric prevails when good presumes not to need rhetoric.  We have to align good and rhetoric; long ago, rhetoric was defined as “the good (hu)man speaking well.”

Today education is under attack.  Diane Ravitch speaks for me when she tells of the betrayal of public education by those we voted to represent and defend us.  NCLB lies about its intention and action: it leaves most children behind and even threatens to destroy public education altogether.  ( )

NWP (National Writing Project) is simply the best program I’ve experienced in 40+ years as a professional educator, and it’s now getting cut in federal funding while the perpetrators of the economic crisis continue to amass unconscionable wealth and power.  That’s not right. 

Because of the NWP, I no longer rely on the same print-based textbook of the last century.  Today’s generation, our world’s most valuable resource, lives in an age of digital media and an age of great challenge.  We’re witnessing almost unbelievable political change, and we see how reliant these reforms are on this new rhetoric fused with digital media.  As always, the chances for good rise up when they are joined by the most powerful symbolic system yet known. 

NWP taught me to care for digital media with an even bigger passion than I already had for print-based literacy education.  With its highly developed infrastructure and with amazing professionals who truly walk the talk, NWP provides support 24/7.  Keeping afloat in a Web X.0 World isn’t possible without this infrastructure.

Now is the time for us to power-up.  Good aligned with rhetorical power still prevails.  Good people who walk the talk with the resources of digital media and Web2.0 are remaking the world.  Educators who care for all children in our public education system can successfully defend the best of our promises and our inheritance.  The dream of this nation once depended on a commitment to make public education a reality for all and for this education to lead the way into freedom, justice, and equality.

The scope of this dream has always been daunting, and still it has summoned many of the best of a pioneering people; but we have not reached far enough into the vision.  I’ve spend a long career in this quest and have often been discouraged almost to the point of quitting, of losing faith, of giving up.  In my career, only one program sustains hope: the National Writing Project.  Perhaps there are others that do it for some folks, but it’s NWP for me.  In brief, it’s because most of all NWP honors the teacher and affirms the knowledge located within the moment where learners are empowered to own it, to make it, and to discern truth from lies.

(For elaboration on this essential feature of situated knowledge, see an earlier blog: )