Thursday, February 09, 2012

Rhetoric as a Foundation

I've argued, obviously in Quixotic fashion, that undergraduates should not have "majors" at more universities. My preference is for students to specialize after a true liberal arts education. This doesn't apply to all students at all colleges and universities, because there are some professional programs that do culminate at the bachelor's degree level. But, I am passionate that more students should be generalists to better understand themselves and the world.

To my colleagues on the "left" I argue that few subjects are more "radical" than traditional rhetoric and philosophy. For centuries, the great thinkers have sought the most effective methods to advocate for change. Many of the great figures in rhetoric have been "radicals" in their times and cultures.

To my colleagues on the "right" I argue that few subjects are more "traditional" in education than the skills of public discourse. The great republicans (small "r") have recognized the need for rhetorical education. There is a tradition in rhetoric of celebrating a shared culture and values. The epideictic tradition is ceremonial and communal.

I don't consider myself neatly left or right. In my experiences, educators and community leaders across the political spectrum recognize the need for rhetorical skills, especially the skills associated with rhetorical analysis and synthesis.

We all benefit from an engaged, thoughtful community. Rhetorical education helps prepare students to listen, read, and see the world with a better awareness of how others try to shape and guide opinions. I want my students to be critical thinkers, and that does not mean my students will agree with me.

Sadly, I read that our leaders — including the President of the United States — want three-year degree programs with more focus on vocational training and "employability" over general skills. What these leaders are forgetting is that a good liberal arts education prepares students for a future in which no job will be the same from year to year.

I hope educators, parents, and community leaders speak up and defend the liberal arts requirements remaining within our university programs. While students might not understand why some courses are essential, they come to appreciate the liberal arts tradition as they progress educationally, personally, and professionally.

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