Rhetoric v. Literature

It is a sad, sad time in education. Schools all over America are considering kicking literature out the window in favor of speeches, articles, ads and other forms of rhetorical writing. Modern rhetoric is replacing literature. If anyone, adult, teacher, or student has to ask how Shakespeare is still relevant it is obvious that they missed the boat. And, in my opinion, shouldn’t be teaching. Classics are only old and stuffy if you present them as such. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with modern works (this highly depends on the work) there is nothing that will teach you about the horrors of poverty and the unfairness of the law towards the impoverished like Les Miserables. No, the musical is not enough, you really do need to read the book. If you didn’t know it was a nineteenth century novel that only furthers my point that literature must be taught in our schools.

As we begin to move away from teaching literature not only do our schools continue to fall but our society suffers as well. It’s not just schools either but the homeschooling community is becoming just as bad. Some popular, though admittedly Christian conservative, home school curriculums have such reviews as: “The only thing I have to say that I don’t like about it is the old english they use in the poetry and many stories” or my favorite, “…since A Beka is a famously conservative Christian publisher and most extant Eastern documents are unchristian philosophy and religion, [the lack of such texts] is understandable. Which illustrates an important element of this course for many—you don’t need to worry about your kids encountering anything offensive here.” So, literature is offensive now. One reviewer actually said: “If you simply want your kids to read as much great literature as possible, this is probably the course you’re looking for (unless you prefer to just buy them a Norton or Longman anthology, but those will be over the heads of most high schoolers, and uncensored).” My goodness, how could we even consider letting high school kids read uncensored material. Um, first, it is only ‘over (their) heads’ if they haven’t been properly instructed in the first place. And heaven forbid we let our kids read anything ‘offensive’ or ‘uncensored’. Yet we will continue to cry about the continuing fall of our society. In my opinion, the increasing lack of literary education and the fall of society are entwined. Nothing should exemplify this more than the recent successes of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey. We are losing storytelling as an art form. And it is art. Literature is defined as being the art of the written word while rhetoric the art of discourse. The beauty and awesome power of just the right words strung together in such a way that the resounding impact is felt for generations.

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” A pivotal speech, a wonderful moment…inspiration that will continue for centuries. “Someday I want my kids to be judged by who they are not what they are.” While having the same meaning this simply doesn’t have the same pull as King’s words. Not because (at least not solely because) of who spoke them but because of the words themselves. Sadly, in today’s society King’s epic moment would most likely be boiled down further to something more akin to: “Haters be hatein’.” Catchy, sure, but it just doesn’t have that cross-generational appeal.

The thing is, cross-generational, hell, cross-cultural appeal is the reason classics are just that: classics. To anyone who doubts that relevance can still be found in classical works I would first love to direct you to anthropology. Odd? Not really when you think about it. In studying anthropology I was given an article entitled: Shakespeare in the Bush by Laura Bohannan. This is such a fantastic example of cross-cultural appeal that I was also given the article in my literature studies as well. This article is about the ‘teaching’ of Hamlet to an African tribal community. Long story short, the article shows that while certain aspects of the story are perceived differently, the basic and general meaning remains the same. It lasts because it holds a certain truth that can apply to everyone, at every time, everywhere. To skip teaching these lessons altogether can only be a detriment to our society.

History is vital to the continuance of our society. History allows us to look at the mistakes of the past and choose a different path. Literature is a part of history. To fully understand a society you not only have to know the historical facts but also take a look at the writings of the time. The literature. This gives you a richer understanding because you are hearing about an event, time, and society directly from someone who lived it. The question that should be asked is whether a student learns more about the horrors of the French Revolution from facts in a history book or from reading A Tale of Two Cities? Do we learn more about the horrors of poverty from numbers in a sociological text or from reading works like Oliver Twist, Les Misereables, or the Grapes of Wrath? Placing a human perspective on such issues is far more memorable than a history book. One wonders if all students were taught A Modest Proposal, an example of the combination of rhetoric and literature, if we would be having the same discussions regarding poverty that Swift wrote upon two centuries ago.

One argument for a solely rhetorical curriculum is that high school students ‘LOATHE’ reading. Sure, but high school students also ‘loathe’ math. Hell, high school students ‘loathe’ school. Sounds like a good idea to ditch the entire system. Yes, read current articles from the NY Times but not at the expense of Shakespeare. Believe me, there is so much to learn from the Bard that the Times cannot even begin to cover.

Another argument is that most kids use Sparknotes, Cliffs Notes, other students, etc. and don’t do the work themselves anyway. Great, so because kids cheat on their homework we should cease teaching it all together. Honestly, it sounds more like a parenting problem then a curriculum problem.

I fail to see how eliminating an entire subject because it is ‘hard’ and kids don’t like it can in any way aid our educational endeavors. Literature is pure, original and for goodness sakes should be uncensored. Our textbooks are more pathetic every edition in an attempt to dumb down the material so that it barely even resembles facts anymore.

Reading takes time and effort. It should take time and effort. Education should take time and effort. Why? Because life takes time and effort. Because work takes time and effort. The problem is, no one wants to put any effort into anything anymore. It has become a culture of entitlement. I should pass because I worked really hard. I failed because it was the teacher’s fault. The class is just too hard, I have to actually—gasp—think. Then, by all means, change the curriculum.

Now, I am not saying that writing shouldn’t be a focus. It should. Dear lord, please focus on that…but in conjunction with literature so kids can learn to write well. How could you possibly learn to write well if you cannot read well? I was a TA in college. I read freshman papers. And yes, there were kids whose writing talent was so poor I constantly wondered how the flip they graduated high school much less accepted into college. But I also knew kids who couldn’t comprehend a single fracking paragraph, any paragraph, much less the political intrigues of the 1960’s. I knew students who read so poorly, in college, that, on several occasions I thought that stabbing myself in the eye with my knitting needle would be less painful. Reading literature is so very much more than reading a story someone wrote a really long time ago. Reading literature not only teaches us to comprehend what someone from a different cultural and historical background is saying; it also teaches us about the time in which it was written. But this is America, so let us solve the problem of kids going to college unprepared for college level writing by sending them to college without ever having touched a book more challenging than Lord of the Flies.

Now comes the ‘fun’ part of the arguments. That the classics are irrelevant, useless. That things taught from literary works have no fundamental place in the real world. You know things like metaphors and allegories. Pointless, so why waste time on them. Works like Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby don’t connect with modern sensibilities; there isn’t much of an underlying message; it’s hard for modern people to appreciate; kids will get more out of books with a relatable moral problem than ones so distantly removed from modern experiences…seriously, WTF!!!! First of all, box office success of the movie adaptation of Gatsby says you are wrong about that one. Now, let me tackle the ‘lack’ of an underlying message or relatable moral problem. Now, we are talking about the same Gatsby right? The Gatsby that points out that when success and happiness based solely on the amount of money one has dooms it to inevitable failure. But, sure, how could that possibly be relevant to life today in the midst of an economic downturn. That would take a book about the ’20’s and the crash of ’29…oh, wait! Great Expectations, true, how could a novel about how thoughts and opinions formed as a young person change as we get older and come to the conclusion that our initial assessments were flat-out wrong; that the life we thought we wanted wasn’t really what we wanted and the life we ran from was the life we really needed could possibly be relevant. Seriously, read the damn books.

There is plenty of contemporary ‘stuff’ that is far more interesting. Classics take a lot of time to read but ‘I read Twilight in like 2 days.‘ Yeah, that last bit is, like, an actual quote on a forum. And one that had me literally, (I know what the word means so yes, I really did) facepalm headdesk. Again with the damn Twilight. Twilight is the number one reason that literature classics should not only be taught but expanded. Are you honestly telling me that you can learn to write from reading opening lines like this?

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt –sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka. In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America.

Seriously, people are going to sit there and tell me that that is better than this?

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.

See, unlike Twilight, Gatsby gives you some semblance of a character relationship and an idea of where the novel is heading. Gatsby offers substance and detail…Twilight just offers detail. Pages upon pages of pointless detail.

Now, in all fairness, I have to admit that I have never actually read Twilight. Not that I haven’t tried, mind you. But I never make it much farther than chapter two before I have the unhealthy desire to throw book, computer, Kindle or any other device I’m using across the damn room. Why? Because I’m on chapter fricking two and I have absolutely no idea who the hell the main character is (ie personality) but I sure as shit know the color of her kitchen cupboards, how they got that way and what she had for breakfast. Holy crap on a cracker. Oh, and I know that the weird, loner kids are pretty. I mean really, really pretty. As if America isn’t shallow enough, this is what passes for a good book these days.

To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t mind a curriculum including Twilight. It has several fantastic examples of run-on sentences with no semblance of point or structure.

The office was small; a little waiting area with padded folding chairs, orange-flecked commercial carpet, notices and awards cluttering the walls, a big clock ticking loudly.

Being one example. But no, they are not even going to study Twilight. Nor or they going to study modern works like Harry Potter, The
Hobbit, or The Da Vinci Code. Nope, they want to study newspapers, advertisements, and speeches. Forgetting, of course, the fact that some of the best journalists and speechwriters have a very strong background in classic literature. Like Hemingway. Like Martin Luther King. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is full of beautiful prose and is considered a masterwork of rhetoric. But did you know the line: “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”—is actually an allusion (note literary term) to Shakespeare’s Richard III?

‘High school is for the essentials, and learning how to communicate and read modern writing seems far more useful.’ Of course it’s useful but so is learning to evaluate a piece of material removed from you own culture and narrow world view. Learning how to use metaphors, allegories and other literary devices are also useful. If I want someone to write me a paper on the history of American economics I am going to want a few literary devices in there. Again, I will go back to the ‘I have a dream’ speech, tell me which you would prefer to hear. Do you want a generation of lackluster, self-absorbed, know-nothing speech writers and journalists or do you want epic, moving speeches in your future? Do you want to read newspapers and hear speeches with lines such as:

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.” (Churchill)

or

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'” (Reagan, quoting ‘High Flight,’ a sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee)

Or do you want an entire generation full of:

“He who warned, uh, the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells, and um, makin’ sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.”

Because I know which I prefer. Seriously, if you want to learn how to speak properly first learn to read poetry. By studying the rhythm of poetry you learn where to place correct emphasis, where to pause, how to build to a climax and in general, how to speak to the public. Some of the world’s best orators are those that have studied poetry.

In fact, poetry was a central component to the study of rhetoric in the Middle Ages after the fall of Rome. Analyzing poetry has been a tenant of rhetorical training since Ancient Greece. Cicero, a significant rhetorician, held the belief that an orator should be well-versed in all areas of human life and culture. This is the reason we have ‘required studies’ in schools. Cicero’s view most definitely included poetry and literature. Poetry was included in rhetoric of old. Chaucer is one example of an author who combined the two. The literary analysis of poetry is essential in the understanding of rhetoric.

Literature is not pointless. It teaches us what sounds right as well as giving us an insight to a cultural or historical perspective that a history book can’t offer. Though, even when all the benefits are pointed out one by one you will still get responses like this (which I am sharing because it hurt oh, so bad): Modern literature has all of those too, but classics seem to me to be over hyped. I mean take Shakespeare as an example, most of the story tellers back in his time told stories verbally, for all we know Shakespeare could of been equated in his time to a smutty mass produced romance novelist, but because his writing survived and is old we are like “omg he is a master”.


I nearly screamed out loud…before I began laughing my head off. But the ‘author’ of this little gem just proves all of my points as to why literary education needs to continue. For perhaps if the author had been well-educated in literature he would have known that the oral tradition had long been on the wayside, the written word had been well established, Shakespeare was not the only author to survive, he was both ‘low brow’ and well-respected in his day, and most importantly, the correct phrasing is ‘could have.’

The purpose of this blog will be to expand upon literary ideals. To show all the ways in which the classics are not only still relevant but beneficial as well. Hopefully, I will even make the reading of such classics enjoyable, understandable and amazingly awesome to those who had not seen them thus before. Literature has a wealth of knowledge to teach us, and while the modern novel should not be ignored there is a depth as well as a historical value to the classics that modern literature doesn’t have. This is not a detriment to modern literature but merely a fact that modern literature cannot have historical perspective…at least not yet.

This is an open discussion. Feel free to ask questions, question anything and everything. Give recommendations and suggestions on what works you think I should address. Need help trudging through ‘a stuffy, boring old book.’ Work with me and we can find a way to make it enjoyable, entertaining and more importantly, educational.     

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