Saturday, August 26, 2006

Berlin, Rhetoric and Reality

Berlin, James A. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1987.

Berlin begins by framing three epistemological orientations in twentieth century rhetoric: objectivist, subjectivist and transactional. In an effort to characterize trends in the teaching of writing and rhetoric from 1900-1985, Berlin further subdivides each category. Objectivist orientations to reality, best reflected in current-traditional pedagogies as well as "behaviorist, semanticist, and linguistic rhetorics," presumes a realm of irrefutable truth and assumes a positivistic attitude toward language as that which reports, more or less precisely, on a stable, concrete reality. Subjective orientations to reality emphasize the interiority of mind and the individualist construction of a relationship to the real which extends beyond but is not necessarily influenced by the material world. The emphasis in subjective rhetorics is on original metaphor, journaling, and supportive forms of collaboration; this orientation blends, as well, with the genteel, the solitary genius, depth psychology (as well as Freud), and romantic reverence for solitary inspiration: "The student can discover the truth, but the truth cannot be taught; the student can learn to write, but writing cannot be taught" (13). The third and final orientation is transactional. Transactional rhetorics divide into classical (truth emerges from a discourse community interacting, not necessarily in agreement), cognitive (mind formation in stages through interactions with the environment), and epistemic (experience and language involve rhetoric in all human activity). Each category is explained in detail in the opening chapter and again at the end.

Each chapter accounts for an (arbitrary?) era in the twentieth century, and along the way, Berlin reads the three rhetorical orientations against tendencies in English education given various moments, scenes, figures and programs. To begin, for example, he accounts for the rise of the poetic and literary at the expense of rhetoric, which was "petrified in a possitivistic configuration" (25).

From 1900-1920, there was a strong resistance to "Uniform Reading Lists"; NCTE was founded to organize resist the domination of the curriculum by such lists (33). There were three major approaches to teaching writing, and each accords to one of the broader categories designated above: current-traditional rhetoric (36), rhetoric of liberal culture (43), and rhetoric of public discourse (46).


  • Emphasis on pluralization of rhetoric to rhetorics (via Paolo Valesio) (3)
  • Refers to tiff with Connors on the possibility of objective, neutral historiography (17)
  • A propensity toward statistics and counting accompanied notions of efficiency at the same time as progressive education arose--1920-1940 (58)
  • Research papers in 1930: "It should be noted that the widespread use of this assignment [the research paper] was influenced by the improvements in library collections during the twenties, as well as by new ways of indexing these materials for easy access--the periodical guides, for example" (70).
  • Largely a credit to Jerome Bruner, the notion of process becomes associated with all rhetorics (123, 158): "The implications of Bruner's thought for writing instruction are clear: Students should engage in the process of composing, not in the study of someone else's process of composing" (123).
  • Limitations of problem-posing and solving: emphasis on solutions. Lauer, instead, in "The Problem of Problem Posing," suggested "the act of creation" rather than "a mechanical art of problem-solving" (161).

Berlin closes with a bibliographic gloss of what was happening in the mid-1980's. He mentions that the three major categories--objectivist, subjectivist, and transactional--apply less neatly to the formations (a disunity) in the field of rhetoric and composition in the mid-late 1980's.

Epistemic rhetoric: "All experiences, even the scientific and logical, are grounded in language, and language determines their content and structure. And just as language structures our responses to social and political issues, language structures our response to the material world. Rhetoric thus becomes implicated in all human behavior" (16).

Objective rhetoric: "Semanticist rhetoric focuses on the distortions that are introduced in communication through the misuse of language" (10). "Disagreement has always to do with faulty observation, faulty language, or both, and never is due to the problematic or contingent nature of truth" (11).

"This thumbnail sketch shows that a number of powerful groups of academic literary critics have divided discourse into two separate and unequal categories: the privileged poetic statement and the impoverished rhetorical statement, the one art and the other 'mere' science" (29).

"To many faculty [1900-1920], the freshman writing course had come to stand for all of the possibilities of rhetoric" (55).

"The distinguishing characteristic of the epistemic view, explains Leff, is 'that rhetoric is a serious philosophical subject that involves not only the transmission, but also the generation of knowledge' (75)" (165).

Terms: New Criticism (28), rhetoric-poetic relationship (26), Uniform Reading Lists (33), progressive education (58), general education movement (92)

Related sources:
Kinneavy, James L. A Theory of Discourse. New York: Norton, 1971.
Ohmann, Richard. "In Lieu of a New Rhetoric." CE 26 (1964): 17-22.
Winterowd, W. Ross. Rhetoric: A Synthesis. New York: Holt, 1968.
Bookmark and Share Posted by at August 26, 2006 7:25 PM to Writing Technologies