The “style” of education

The way we think and talk about the “classroom” and “education” provides examples that tie course concepts together.

From a “standard view” of education, we might believe that education merely transmits objective facts, data, knowledge, and truth about the world. History is merely neutral facts. Literature and poetry are fluff that don’t matter too much for the “real” world. We learn “skills” and learn how to use “tools” that help us be efficient workers (and communicators). We memorize ideas and data and then imitate and repeat those ideas. From this way of thinking, the teacher deposits knowledge into your head, fills your head as if it were an empty receptacle.

On the other hand, a “rhetorical view” might realize that education and everything about education influences and invents knowledge and the way we understand the world and ourselves.  We cannot transmit information and knowledge as neutral, objective bits of data; instead, the process of education (which happens with communication) invents the knowledge.

The “style” of education also changes the way we think about education. Imagine what you would think about the class (and me) if I stood behind the podium and read a prepared lecture to you. Would you be excited about the class? Would you want to learn as much? The presetation style evokes different reactions.

You could also think about the physical arrangement of a classroom as a style that affects meaning and behavior. Look at the following pictures and consider how the style of the classroom communicates attitudes and beliefs and values about communication and education:


If you enter a class and all the desks are arranged in a circle, what do you expect in that class? How does that front imply a certain performance? If you walk into a large lecture auditorium where the lights are turned low except for the lights on the stage by the podium, what do you expect that class / lecture to be like? What does that style imply about the role of the students in the learning process? Are the students supposed to be active participants in that scene?

Like Lanham wrote, “Style becomes content” and “choreographs … human consciousness.”


From Peters to performance (Goffman)

Check out this short article about the necessity of “lying” … It is related to Peter’s point that we cannot avoid imperfect communication and in fact it is a very good thing we can’t communicate perfectly.

The author writes:

Here is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: My name is Lisa, and I am a liar, though a good marketing consultant could probably finesse the word into something a bit more palatable: “Reality Stylist” might be good, or “Pinocchiotologist” could work. My mother insists that, at the end of the day, what I am is a storyteller — and she might have a point.

So I sugarcoat and I gloss over, and I rationalize and, yes, I sometimes fictionalize my little story.

So far, we’ve spent some time setting up a “battle” of ideas over communication and rhetoric. From Plato forward we’ve had many discourses (cultural “conversations” if you will) that emphasize the attitude that “rhetoric” is generally bad or dangerous because it can mislead or misrepresent. And from this position, we might be more likely to criticize this author for “fictionalizing” her stories.

But now we want to explore the other side of the “battle” over rhetoric–the side we probably aren’t as familiar with (even though it goes on around us every day). We will begin to fill in what a “rhetorical view” of communication means. And we will start creating more answers to the question “What else does communication do beyond transmit ideas?”

One question we could ask about this article is: “Is this really lying?” If we’re always seeing things and talking about things from a certain perspective and if there is no such thing as “truth or fact as they actually exist” (Lanham) then is “rhetoric” necessarily bad? … or like Peters says, is our imperfect communication–including rhetoric–a “handsome condition” and “blessing?” This week we’ll read about “performance” and consider the question “When aren’t we performing? When aren’t we wearing a mask?” And how do our performances also create identities and realities?

This article quotes Joan Didion who says, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That message is similar to a point Lanham makes in “The Rhetorical Ideal of Life.” Lanham explains that with a “rhetorical view” we will realize that our “capacity to make up comforting illusions is as infinite as the university [we are] flung into. Naked into the world [we] may come, but not without resource.” ( 8 ) In other words, rhetoric, performance, “storytelling” are all necessary features and valuable resources for our lives shared with others. Like Isocrates and Peters believe, these aspects of communication allow us to connect with one another and create new beliefs, worlds, and culture.

The “Wonderful” Wizard from Wicked

elphabaThe musical Wicked tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West (the character from The Wizard of Oz) … from her perspective. In the show, we learn that Elphaba (that’s the Wicked Witch’s name) isn’t so “wicked” after all. She was born green and so everyone in Oz treated her poorly and picked on her. She was born with the gift of magic, but her talents scared the citizens of Oz so they treated her like a villain and she became an outcast. The “fact” or “truth” is not that Elphaba simply is wicked; instead the way people talked about her and treated her made her seem wicked. The story is an excellent example of a “rhetorical view” of communication.

In the musical, the “wonderful wizard of oz” sings a song to Elphaba about how he came to be “wonderful.” His attitude in the song demonstrates nicely the “rhetorical view of communication.”


“Wonderful” from the musical Wicked


I never asked for this or planned it in advance
I was merely blown here by the winds of chance
I never saw myself as a Solomon or Socrates
I knew who I was:
One of your dime a dozen mediocrities

Then suddenly I’m here
Respected – worshipped, even
Just because the folks in Oz
Needed someone to believe in

They called me “Wonderful”
So I said “Wonderful” – if you insist
I will be “Wonderful”
And they said “Wonderful”
Believe me, it’s hard to resist
‘Cause it feels wonderful
They think I’m wonderful
Hey, look who’s wonderful –
This corn-fed hick

Who said: “It might be keen
To build a town of green
And a wonderful road of yellow brick!”

(spoken) See – I never had a family of my own. So, I
guess I just – wanted to give the citizens of Oz everything.

Notice how the wizard realizes that communication made him wonderful. (They called  him wonderful so he is wonderful.) Before he got to Oz, his role, his primary performance was being a “mediocre,” “corn-fed hick.” But the people of Oz needed a leader and they believed it was him, so suddenly he became wonderful through the magic of communication. Lanham said that from a rhetorical perspective reality is what we make, what we accept as reality. It’s not something that just exists for us to discover. The wizard gets that. That doesn’t necessarily make him a fraud or a liar, but because he has a “rhetorical view” on life and communication and identity he understands that the “reality” of his wonderfulness is constructed, not natural.

ELPHABA: (spoken) So you lied to them.

WIZARD: (spoken) Elphaba, where I’m from, we believe all sorts of
things that aren’t true. We call it – “history

Elphaba sounds a little like Plato. As if the wizard is deceiving, manipulating, and lying–or using rhetoric to muddy up the truth. But just like Lanham’s “rhetorical view” of communication, the wizard understands that most of what we believe is an “illusion” of sorts. Everything is equally rhetorical. That dosn’t mean it’s not “real” or that everything is an evil “lie.” But it is a different way to think about reality.

(sung) A man’s called a traitor – or liberator
A rich man’s a thief – or philanthropist
Is one a crusader – or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist

This part captures the “rhetorical view” perfectly. The wizard shows us why words invent ideas and knowledge instead of simply transmit them. Depending on perspective or culture or history, etc. we can easily come up with multiple “truths” about the world. Communication allows us to alter and shape reality, knowledge and truth.

They call me “Wonderful” so I am wonderful
In fact – it’s so much who I am it’s part of my name
And with my help, you can be the same

His final message to Elphaba is simple. Communication helped invent the reality that he was “wonderful” … and she can have the same thing. Unfortunately for her, the way people talked about her and the ways she performed created a different reality–she became “wicked” instead of “wonderful.”

Here’s the music if you’d like to listen along…


In class I asked, “How does magic work? How do magicians make an audience suspend their disbelief and accept the “impossible?” How does David Blaine convince his audience that he’s levitating?



Magicians know how to make things seem as if they’re real. They create perceptions and diversions so the audience will see the illusion from a certain perspective and accept the performance as real–even if we know it’s impossible.


Penn & Teller explain some ways that magic works in this clip we watched in class …




As I’ve explained, this course attempts to change the way we think about communication and ask “What else can communication do?” beyond sending messages or transmiting ideas clearly and precisely. One way to approach that question is to think of communication as “magic:” an interactive encounter that makes reality seem as if it is a certain way and that helps us see things from certain perspectives. We regularly communicate in order to do some of the things that Penn describes in the video above.

  • “Simulation”: to “give the impression that something that hasn’t happened, has;” or to give the impression that it has happened in a certain way. How do we do this through communication? What are some examples where we try to change impressions or appearances?
  • “Misdirection”: to lead attention away from something. How do we use communication to direct our attention elsewhere? This may seem like a bad or manipulative feature … but is it necessarily a bad thing?
  • “Switch”: to secretly exchange one object for another; or to change the terms we use for something; or to change the perspective from which we view something. How do we change meaning and reality simply by using different words or symbols? What are some examples where we make a “switch” with communication?

These questions help us move closer to understanding the “rhetorical view of life” that Lanham describes in this week’s reading. You need to know how this way of thinking about communication and the world differs from the “serious” view of communication or the standard view of communication that treats communication as a tool that merely describes reality as it exists outside of communication. The debate between Plato and Isocrates over the role of communication is the same debate Lanham discusses. How is his “rhetorical view of life” similar to Isocrates’ praise of communication?