I recently ran across and interesting quote concerning the differences between philosophy and rhetoric as orientations for viewing the world from George Kennedy:
The disagreement between Plato and the sophists over rhetoric was not simply an historical contingency, but reflects a fundamental cleavage between two irreconcilable ways of viewing the world. There have always been those, especially among philosophers and religious thinkers, who have emphasized goals and absolute standards and have talked much about truth, while there have been as many others to whom these concepts seem shadowy or imaginary and who find the only certain reality in the process of life and the present moment. In general, rhetoricians and orators, with certain distinguished exceptions, have held the latter view, which is the logical, if unconscious, basis of their common view of art as a response to a rhetorical challenge unconstrained by external principles. The difference is not only that between Plato and Gorgias, but between Demosthenes and Isocrates, Virgil and Ovid, Dante and Petrarch, and perhaps Milton and Shakespeare.
Talking with a student this afternoon, I was reminded of Francine Prose’s wonderful Reading Like a Writer which is really worth picking up if you haven’t read it yet. In it, Prose discusses the importance of paying attention to sentences and consciously thinking about your writing at the level of the sentence–something many student-writers don’t pay enough attention to:
…perhaps it will offer some comfort if I say that if you are even thinking in these terms–that is, if you are even considering what might constitute strong, vigorous, energetic, and clear sentences–you are already far in advance of wherever you were before you were conscious of the sentence as something deserving our deep respect and enraptured attention.
While Prose concedes that the essential qualities of beautiful sentences are difficult to pin down, she turns to Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry for an apt comparison (“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know this is poetry”).
So, I want to ask you, what was the last sentence that made you feel that? As you read, do you pay attention to sentences in this way?
Towards the end of the chapter, Prose discusses Ernest Hemingway’s famous passage from A Moveable Feast concerning sentences:
But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.
While many of you have no doubt read this before, I think it’s worth noting that Prose pushes on what Hemingway means by “true” here. We know that he is writing fiction, so why a true sentence? Does he mean beauty? Prose concludes that the power of the above quote–and why it has been so often repeated–is that Hemingway never really says what he means by true. Maybe it’s like the Dickinson quote above in that I may not be able to fully define what he means by a true sentence, but I know it when I read one.
I’ve been thinking about literacy sponsorship for the past couple of days and I really want to get a better understanding of this relationship between sponsorship and ideology. Brandt, of course, says “sponsors deliver the ideological freight that must be borne for access to what they have … the sponsored can be oblivious to or innovative with this ideological burden” (74). So, it is clear that every instance of literacy (it might be helpful to think of Gee’s definition of literacy here) learning is simultaneously a presentation of ideology. I hesitate to say that every act of literacy learning is also an indoctrination because Brandt makes it clear that the learner can innovate in critical and creative ways with this ideological freight–if they are conscious of it.
I think it is helpful to think about sponsorship first through our experiences in formal education–public or private. The teachers, administrators, officials, etc. that make up the entire educational apparatus at the county, state, and federal level. For Brandt, the bureaucratic machine behind education–and its interests–cannot be separated from the individual classroom experience and the instances of literacy sponsorship on a day-to-day basis. Even if this is largely, and perhaps purposefully, not made apparent or not thought about. (Like the little league team that wears the logo of the insurance agency on their jersey in order to play ball.) So, thinking of Alexie’s description of his experience with formal education and his returning to the classrooms on the reservation trying to reach students:
I visit the schools as often as possible. The Indian kids crowd the classroom. Many are writing their own poems, short stories, and novels. They have read my books. They have read many other books. They look at me with their bright eyes and arrogant wonder. They are trying to save their lives. Then there are the sullen and already defeated Indian kids who sit in the back rows and ignore me with theatrical precision. The pages of their notebooks are empty. They carry neither pencil nor pen. They stare out the window. They refuse and resist.
It is important to point out what is implied is going to happen to the students refusing his sponsorship noting that he is, quite literally, trying to save their lives. Alexie recognizes the social power of literacy and what it can do socially. But, at the same time, there is a recognition of the ideological burdens that comes with these particular literacies and why the rebel students might feel compelled to resist it. Accepting English, accepting formal education modeled and structured in that particular way, means accepting the same dominating forces that created the reservation to begin with. I mean, there is a reason why these kids are resisting. It’s not as simple as being “bad” students, I don’t think. What Gee does for us in this regard is allow us to articulate a third way to think about literacy and ideology beyond simply blind acceptance or a fierce resistance: powerful literacy. Powerful literacy is, I would argue, related to Brandt’s idea that we can be innovative with the ideological freight of literacy. We need to spend some time thinking about examples of what is meant here. Frederick Douglass immediately comes to mind for me. Who his literacy sponsors were, how he came to learning, and what he was able to do with it. Malcolm X’s short piece, “Learning to Read,” is also worth checking out to think about innovation in this way.