Current Affairs Rhetoric/Composition

rhetoricians in the space-time of war

My colleague and friend, Mike Edwards, a faculty member at West Point, is now blogging from Kabul, where he is beginning a six-month stint helping to develop language and literacy education there. First and foremost, I wish him a safe journey and look forward to the opportunity to buy him a drink the next time our paths cross. In his most recent post, he describes getting the project underway:

the project our American mentor team has taken on feels enormous and a little bit diffuse, with undefined boundaries or limits beyond that of the departure of the American mentor presence from this extraordinarily young institution of higher education in less than three years, and a philosophy that can mostly be summed up as an orientation toward helping the Afghans draw together and perform all these administrative and curricular and pedagogical tasks, literally inventing the university in its entirety as their own, on their own. I still struggle to get my head around how big a project this is and how many moving parts it has and how swiftly and carefully we have to move. 

Put bluntly, I don't envy the challenge before him. When I think about inventing the university, the first thing is that the modern university as we know it is a Western development, specifically from 19th century Germany. The university was part of the modern nation building of Germany and, importantly, it was developed in response to the cultural impact of losing to Napoleon. Arguably, Afghanistan faces a similar cultural and national crisis. It is important to add that there are Muslim institutions of higher learning that date to the 10th century as well as Persian and Indian traditions. So the university does not necessarily mean "Western." That said, one imagines this particular university as participating in the democratic, nation-building enterprise that is part of the larger US mission there.

In the context of all of this, I was thinking about the important role of rhetoric (and ethics). One might argue that Western-style rhetoric is a foundation of a Western-style democracy (and indeed that the failures of our own democracy are at least partly a reflection of the failure of 20th-century rhetorical education). Admittedly, it is difficult to know if the relationship is necessary or not, but certainly the long tradition of rhetoric is present in the founding documents of American government. We might say that our government struggles to be the democracy it imagined itself to be because 1) many citizens (and politicians) have abandoned a civic, democratic rhetoric in favor of a fundamentalist, biblically-inspired hermeneutic (which, ironically, is what our founding fathers were trying to avoid) and 2) a related failure of ethics in favor of a magical faith in capitalism. It's not hard to imagine that Afghanistan will face similar challenges in relation to religion and global economics. We've seen these two forces pitted against each other at least since Benjamin Barber wrote "Jihad vs. McWorld" in 1992. In this light, it may be that a rhetorical education will be a factor in the fate of democracy in Afghanistan. 

In any case, I've been thinking about this in the context of last night's State of the Union. Once again, Obama made the case for the importance of education…. in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I don't disagree. We need to improve in STEM education. And these fields will be important in improving our economy and addressing many of the problems we face as a planet. At the same time, I can't help but think that many of the problems we have created have been the result of a failure of rhetoric and ethics and that our continuing disregard for that fact means that we can expect future problems of the same kinds.

The meltdown of our economy wasn't caused by a technoscientific deficit, nor was it a result of a mathematical error. It was fundamentally an ethical problem. And by that I do not simply mean that people on Wall St were greedy, though that's part of it. There was a failure to govern, both on the part of the government and on our part as citizens. If we want to prevent future failures of this kind, it isn't enough to educate a generation of scientifically literate students. Similarly, the crippling stagnation of American politics won't be solved by streamlining technologies or by electing politicians with a stronger background in science. In my view, a central element of rhetoric is the art of communicating and working with people with whom you disagree. In Washington, we can agree that the government's responsibility is to govern. Maybe that's all we agree on and obviously we disagree about the form that governing should take. Nevertheless, we need to work together to do that governing. Rhetoric is the mechanism by which that is accomplished.  

Unfortunately, few Americans, even few, well-educated Americans, have much of an understanding of rhetoric. In America, changing one's mind is considered… what? Weak? Inappropriate? Unmanly? UnAmerican? We aren't allowed to be persuaded. In fact, in political discourse it even seems to be inappropriate to listen to a disenting opinion. It's not hard to extrapolate the kinds of problems that might result. Of course, money talks. Maybe an education in rhetoric and ethics, along with one in math and science, might help Americans realize why our current situation is untenable. So if we can figure out how to create a democracy in Afghanistan then maybe we can learn from that lesson how to create one here as well.