Wednesday, February 08, 2012

teachers teach the damnedest things

I have a student, a high-school junior, who tells me that his English teacher has taught his students to write five-paragraph essays by making each of the three body paragraphs, respectively, an example of Aristotle's rhetorical techniques of ethos, pathos, and logos.* I don't recall ever learning this in high school-- at least, I don't recall ever hearing any of my teachers use explicitly Aristotelian terminology whenever they discussed essay-writing technique. I was also nonplussed at the idea of separating Aristotle's techniques out that way: it made no damn sense to me. But the student insisted that that's what his teacher has been teaching. I marveled when I heard this.

So, curious, I did a bit of research and quickly discovered that Aristotle never intended the techniques to be separated in that manner: all three are meant to overlap in a mutually supporting way. This selfsame teacher has been using a "textbook" titled Thank You for Arguing by Jay Heinrichs.** (My student has brought the book in several times.) From what I've seen of it, the book mostly concentrates on the emotional to the near-exclusion of the logical. Far from teaching critical, analytical thinking and the role of logic, far from talking about formal and informal fallacies, the book seems content to focus on rhetorical parlor tricks-- the histrionic tactics that can sway an audience during a live debate as opposed to the tactics that will impress an educated, rational reader.

I think the book is garbage, and I'm increasingly convinced that this teacher should be fired for twisting Aristotle and ruining crop after crop of juniors passing through his classroom. As I mentioned to my student, it'll probably be the job of the senior-year English teacher to undo the damage this teacher is causing.

*Very roughly: ethos refers to a writer's or speaker's respectability and believability. Someone who can speak with authority based on experience and expertise is more likely to be believed than someone who can't. Pathos refers to the appeal to the emotions: pulling at the heartstrings, using shaming tactics, etc. Logos, meanwhile, involves the use of reason, and is considered by the majority of scholars to be the most important component of rhetoric. After all, if your arguments have no logic to them, they'll succeed only in persuading the illogical.

**Some Amazon reviewers feel Heinrichs places the most emphasis on ethos. I haven't sat down to read the book all the way through, but I'd say he values ethos and pathos much more highly than logos. Superficial dickhead.



John from Daejeon said...

Seems to me that Hitler used a similar approach, and, sadly, fear mongering still works as we'll see come the this December as we have another Y2Kish run on generators and batteries.

Charles said...

Wow. Yeah, definitely never learned anything like that in my English classes. We focused primarily on logos and got chewed out when we strayed too far into pathos.