Historical Rhetorics/Sophists Old and New/Crowley, Sharon. "A Plea for the Revival of Sophistry."

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Crowley, Sharon. "A Plea for the Revival of Sophistry." Rhetoric Review 7 (1989): 318-334.

Sharon Crowley begins “A Plea for the Revival of Sophistry” with a familiar trope – a nostalgic, soft-focus look at educators past. But Crowley does not call on this utopic image for reactionary purposes; instead, she draws on the past to advocate progressive change in the contemporary composition classroom. In the service of this pedagogical reimagining, Crowley attempts to reclaim sophistry and integrate its awareness of multiple viewpoints and social action within modern Composition. Unlike most contemporary composition classrooms (circa 1989) that Crowley sees as overly permissive in regard to worthwhile writing topics and oversimplified in regard to writing instruction, she longs to imbue contemporary Composition with the positive attributes of sophistic rhetoric, primarily “rhetorical awareness” that contextualizes composition within a “complex network of social, political, ethical, and cultural parameters” (323).

Crowley traces the historical approaches to teaching writing and discourse as they have moved from the teaching of the Sophists in ancient Greece to instruction in the modern American institution, noting what she calls a movement from a “philosophy of wisdom” toward a “philosophy of knowledge” brought on by the modern reverence and authority given to the scientific, the objective, and the knowable. Crowley notes that modern composition pedagogies have become “technologized” rhetorics—rhetorics reduced to a set of techniques which can be observed, learned, and applied “like varnish” to any discourse on any issue, essentially insisting that the same rhetorical techniques operate in a discussion on abortion as those that operate in a discussion on bicycle assembly. Crowley argues that this technologized approach places the public in the position of an observer of rhetoric rather than a participant; indeed, in the public domain, rhetorical authority has been placed in the hands of specialists, with politics becoming increasingly privatized and scholarship becoming silent, as specialized knowledge is not distributed widely from specialists into the public domain. As, Crowley observes, the public authorities rely less on public use of rhetoric, rhetorical practice has become less visible and knowable to the public on which it is used, creating a massive lack of awareness of the way rhetorical practice operates and resulting in a public discourse whose efficacy is “so well hidden that America has a nearly silent citizenry” (322). Crowley insists that teachers in the University, who have political, social, and cultural predilections whether or not they realize it, do a disservice to their students by creating the illusion of the classroom as a “value-neutral space,” as a place of “refuge from social realities” (325). Rather, Crowley calls for modern teachers to be active participants in and to engage their students with political and social issues; she calls for writing and rhetoric to be taught the way it was taught in ancient Greece and in early America: with increased rhetorical awareness of the way discourse operates within a complex network of cultural, political and social factors and of the ways discourse is used to solve public problems, with understanding of the real-life situations in which composing occurs, with awareness of the role status and character plays in the authority of the speakers, and to understand the range of responses an audience might have. She is calling for a non-silent, engaged citizenry, with the goal of discourse education, as it was in ancient Greece, to produce citizen-orators.

Discussion Questions:

1. Crowley says

“Just as doctors use drugs to change unsatisfactory physical conditions into more comfortable ones, teachers unsettle their pupils in such a way as to move them away from unsatisfactory positions toward more useful ones. In this way, social and political change come about.” (329)

In Acts of Enjoyment, Thomas Rickert warns that a dangers occurs in the cultural studies classroom when the instructor thinks he or she knows what is best for the student more than the student does. How do we understand Crowley’s plea in consideration of Rickert’s warning? Does a Sophistic rhetoric put instructors into this position? Must it?

2. Consider Crowley’s point below as it relates to the Vitanza and Jarratt readings for today.

“Technical rhetoric is ordinarily studied from textbooks. Since textbooks are intended to initiate novices into a field of study, they tend to reductivize its tenets, as well as to universalize them. That is, textbook authors choose, organize, and present the supposedly fundamental tenets of any field of study as though these had always existed in the coherent form in which they appear in the textbook. . . . Too, authors of textbooks usually condense or omit altogether the historical debates that led to the formulation of the discipline as a coherent field of study. Thus they overlook the local and time-bound nature of the speculative investigations that unearthed the principles they present.” (324)

How would (and would it?) a Sophistic rhetoric in the composition classroom avoid this historiographical problem?