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The Bain of Current-Traditional Pedagogy

“Much of the necessary instruction can be condensed into principles, and may be impressed by carefully chosen examples. They teacher is here a trainer, can impart in a short compass, what, without him, would be acquired slowly, if at all. It is this, accordingly, that I account his principle vocation” (Bain 1145).

“…this rhetoric makes the patterns of arrangement and superficial correctness the main ends of writing instruction…In the world of current-traditional rhetoric, all truths are regarded as certain, readily available to the correct method of investigation” (Berlin 9).

“While in the late nineteenth century many institutions may have encouraged more unimaginative writing lessons with repetitive drills, other schools (as well as individuals’ instruction) actively promoted lessons in oral rhetoric and prepared people previously excluded from civic discourse to engage in it” (Bordelon, Wright, Halloran).

I put these three texts in conversation with one another to show what might be called the dominant view (and/or the dominant view of the dominant view) as well as to contrast that with the diversity that may be encountered in the actual practices of teaching writing during the nineteenth century in America. My own research in this area has shown evidence of both perspectives: At times, the instruction seems to have been very drill-oriented, tediously constructed timed writing, graded solely (it seems) upon punctuation, spelling, and whether or not the time spent writing produced exactly as many lines as was expected. On the other hand, students also engaged in reading their works aloud, peer critique, and eventually public debates against one another about culturally relevant and political topics. Though Berlin’s work has been critiqued as offering a less nuanced view of writing instruction in America than was likely the case in practice, his works are still a useful lens through which to view and classify texts, including that produced by Alexander Bain.

The idea presented in Bain’s work, that teaching English and rhetoric can be reduced to “training” students in the use of a prescribed set of rules, conventions, and grammar, was arguably the predominant view of pedagogy in this area for the next one hundred and fifty years, and many still find this perspective in classroom practices even today. His discussion of the importance of topic sentences, paragraph unity and cohesion, and the prescribed nature of conjunctions are areas of information still frequently cited in composition textbooks, and are expected parts of student writing in many academic contexts.

As noted by Berlin, the views of rhetoric and composition arise within an epistemological framework of the larger society, thus the view promoted from the time of Bain onward (and arguably before via Campbell et al, from the time of Locke or perhaps even Aristotle) demonstrates the privileging of objective theories of knowledge over subjective or relational models. In this sense, rhetoric itself is presented from an objective stance, where knowledge of a “correct” technique of composition is assumed, and standardization of this method is seen as the outcome or goal. Additionally, if the attainment of objective knowledge is an assumed possibility, then language should be clear and precise, seeking to transmit this objective, knowable reality as clearly and succinctly as possible without the adornment or stylistic adaptations often associated with rhetoric. The job of this type of language is not to persuade, for it claims to deal only with that which is provable, knowable “truth,” thus language should provide as clear a window as possible to this truth so that it might be transmitted to others without obscuration.

Alexander Bain

In a sense, this exaggerated or extrapolated version of perspicuity carries multiple implications and risks regarding the distortion, manipulation, or appropriation of knowledge by giving a kind of automatic ethos to the disembodied voice that utilizes it. In other words, upon hearing language that claims to transmit the facts of reality from a disinterested, objective position, it may make it more likely that an audience will take at face value whatever information is presented in this fashion as an example of an objective, known, authoritative reality, as the “facts” of the issues do not seem to be up for debate. Bain himself uses this type of language in his description of the usefulness of teaching from this perspective by stating things such as the distinctions made by past rhetoricians “have no practical value” as though this opinion is an objective fact (1147).

This rhetoric of objectivity has obvious possible consequences for the way that “truth” is constructed, disseminated, and regulated through discourse. As Berlin notes, this belief system posits that there is one correct way to view an observable, objective, material reality and that “disagreement has to do with faulty observation, faulty language, or both, and never is due to the problematic and contingent nature of truth” (11). Any sense of ethos arises from the authority of the “truth itself,” thus avoiding any discussion of ethics or the motivation for the use of this type of authority for any ends whatsoever. There is likewise no consideration of rhetoric as “a good man speaking well,” but rather an assumption that what is objectively observable in material reality comprises the full scope of authority necessary to speak. Rhetoric, to this end, is viewed from a perspective of style and presentation, as it is not necessary to “talk about” the truth, but rather merely to represent it as clearly as possible to those who have not yet observed it or who are unable to see the authority of that “unbiased” position.

This style of writing and of teaching composition offers an even more hidden or insidious form of invisible manipulation in that it presents itself as truth rather than as a deliberation about what is probably true. Rather than overtly appealing to pathos, this type of rhetoric cloaks itself as an appeal to logos, citing that as the highest level of achieving knowledge, but is actually, on another level, an appeal to the emotional states of the audience and their desire to self-identify as “one who is logical.” This also works as a pathetic appeal in that the voice of authority creates an emotional reaction in some audience members who may experience a sense of being overpowered or silenced by a more knowledgeable “voice of authority” that claims to have access to truth that is denied to the rest of society. In the absence of a consideration of ethics regarding this means of disseminating “the truth,” it is possible to see the potential violations of ethics that might occur through the use of this rhetoric.

For instance, many “scientific” theories have been postulated during the span of time that this current-traditional approach has been utilized in rhetoric and composition studies that gave “indisputable evidence” for why whites or males were superior to all other classes of human beings, thus legitimizing the oppression of marginalized groups. It could even be said that this rhetoric creates, or at the very least reproduces, marginalization by discursively regulating the categories that are then placed “naturally” within the class, race, and sex-based hierarchies that maintain the dominant power structures. Much scientific, authoritative-sounding rhetoric existed throughout this time to justify multiple forms of oppression and went largely unquestioned because, due to the rhetorical position of ultimate knowledge from which these positions were presented, no argument, debate, or dialogic method of knowledge generation was sought or allowed. Instead, these ideologies were presented as truth that did not need further discussion in order to be taken as such.

The devaluation of rhetoric that confined it to the study of arrangement and style potentially limited the scope of what could be articulated and discussed regarding the dominant discourses of the time, and restricted access to counter-discourses that could question or resist the dominant paradigm. The study of rhetoric as defined in this narrow scope restricts access to the critical skills integral in analyzing, recognizing, and/or creating rhetoric, and may lead to a society where these types of abuses of power are more likely to occur, as people are not given the tools with which to critique these voices of power, nor the rhetorical ability to resist or question them. As noted by Berlin, during the past century and a half when the authority of this type of rhetoric has flourished, “the work of the writing teacher is to teach the transcription process, providing instruction in arrangement and style — arrangement so that the order of experience is correctly recorded, and style so that clarity is achieved and class affiliation established” (27). Thus, as one speaks “the truth” in an authoritative tone, arranging it to be “true to life” and creating a style that articulates the privileged class position of one who has the authority to speak as such, the dominant ideology of materialism, class structure, and the hierarchical ordering of society is maintained through this rhetoric that claims not to be one.

The practice of presenting so-called objective knowledge as truth can be seen in the writings of many social scientists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as in a variety of discourses today. Even in composition, students are often encouraged to present their ideas from an authoritative perspective, and despite the changes in rhetorical theory over the past few decades that have led to more inclusive models, the current-traditional paradigm still holds huge influence within academia. At the least, the re-expansion of the scope of rhetoric gives the possible tools by which we, as a society, might question the basis of ethos in these discourses of rhetorical objectivity. Additionally, in this critique, it becomes possible to question the basis of objective knowledge as an epistemic approach and to make visible the way that rhetoric is utilized to create the apparent ethos of “truth,” despite the contingent and constantly changing nature of that truth. To this end, the ethics of objectivity might be questioned, hopefully leading to a more dialectic approach to meaning-making that includes an increasingly heterogeneous perspective, as well as the skills to critique and question all forms of authority and authoritative discourse.

Works Cited:

Bain, Alexander. “English Composition and Rhetoric.” The Rhetorical Tradition:Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd Ed. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2001. 1145-1148. Print.

Berlin, James A. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. 1-19. Print.

Bordelon, Suzanne, Elizabethada Wright, S. Michael Halloran. “From Rhetoric to Rhetorics: An Interim Report on the History of American Writing Instruction to 1900.” A Short History of Writing Instruction from Ancient Greece to Contemporary America. 3rd Edition. Ed. James Murphy. New York: Routledge, 2012.


One comment on “The Bain of Current-Traditional Pedagogy

  1. So, what I think you are saying is that the prescribed method of rhetoric and composition during this time period did not allow for dialectic (opposing viewpoints) because it focused too much on creating an authoritative, objective voice, and this voice almost always followed whatever was the dominant “truth” of the time. While I agree that this is not the best method of instruction or presenting material, I wonder how much this feeling of “objective truth” in writing as taught in schools actually affected thought. I feel like this method has been in existence, as you mention early in this post, since Aristotle, and that this pre-existence led to the method of teaching composition and rhetoric found in Bain and others. Maybe a question of the chicken and the egg? How different are we from this? Are we not pushing the current dominant “truths” in our own classrooms? We like to believe that we are more “open”, but how do we approach students who hold different beliefs–beliefs we may deem “dated” or “overly religious”? (Playing devil’s advocate.)

    I also wonder if dialectic as invention completely disappeared from schooling during this time. Where were the “facts” coming from? I don’t have much knowledge of education during the time beyond what we’ve read for class. You also say that the authoritativeness of the wording didn’t allow for any dissent; however, we have seen several examples of dissenting voices. While these are few and far between, it still indicates that things may not have been so cut and dry. Someone somewhere had to have questioned the “facts” in order for any change to occur. These people may not have come out of schools that taught using Bain, though. Self-education may hav allowed for the dissent.

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