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Fleming, David. Fear of Persuasion in English Language Arts. CE, July 2019. Posted 09/02/2019.

Fleming, David. “Fear of Persuasion in the English Language Arts.” College English 81.6 (2019): 508-41. Print.

David Fleming expresses concern that English instruction at all levels has banished “persuasion” as one of the rhetorical arts. He argues that scholars and practitioners in the English Language Arts should reconsider the importance of persuasion as a central element of human communication and reinvigorate it as part of the language curriculum.

Fleming examines the history of “persuasion” from ancient Greek culture through present-day curricula like that included in the Common Core State Standards for preK-12 classrooms and currently taught in college composition classes. The Greeks, he points out, considered persuasion a god in the form of Peitho, seen as a vital force in all forms of political and cultural life (508), particularly because of its power to bring people together (509). The god, however, had two sides, one involving “eros, beauty, and seduction” and the other including “logos, speech, and reason” (508-09). Its seductive powers mean that persuasion “needs discipline” if its practitioners are to maximize its worth without giving in to its “vices” (510).

Fleming draws on the contrast between the Isocratean rhetorical tradition and the Socratic philosophical approach to illustrate persuasion’s complex history. The Socratic tradition turned to a dialectical search for truth, characterizing persuasion as the ability to “mov[e] crowds of uneducated listeners” (509). This strand, Fleming writes, led to “modern philosophy,” as developed by thinkers like René Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant, for whom “disagreement” was to be taken as a “sign of error” on the part of one of the arguers (511).

In contrast, Isocrates, in a tradition continued by Quintillian and Cicero, argued for rhetorical practice “centered on language, literature, and the arts of social influence, rather than mathematics, dialectic, and truth seeking” (509). This tradition, Fleming writes, appears as well in the late eighteenth-century British Enlightenment, with the work of George Campbell and Hugh Blair. Fleming states that in Campbell’s view, persuasion was the most important of the four aims of discourse because it acted on the “will” and generated action (512).

Fleming reports that this respect for persuasion as one of a range of forms of discourse continued through the nineteenth century in United States education. John Franklin Genung’s “influential 1886 textbook” considered persuasion “sovereign” among rhetorical aims because it spoke to “the whole man—not to his mind alone, but to mind and heart and will” (Genung, qtd. in Fleming 513). U. S. education in these years is characterized as an “oratorical culture” with a “backdrop of momentous social issues” (513), in which powerful public speakers influenced public opinion and spurred action.

In Fleming’s view, persuasion lost ground in education as “scientific, technical, and commercial pursuits” replaced the “traditional arts,” writing supplanted speaking, and persuasion became “weaponized” for commercial and political ends (514). Educators began to consider persuasive tactics as a form of domineering violence and urged a turn to argument seen as “inquiry, discovery, or communication” (Amy Knoblauch, qtd. in Fleming 515).

Argument as opposed to persuasion, Fleming indicates, experienced a resurgence with Stephen Toulmin’s 1958 The Uses of Argument, in which, in Fleming’s view, “practical reasoning” cast argument as “all about justification, the relationship of statements, not of people” (516). Educators, he contends, came to see argument and persuasion as separate kinds of discourse, with persuasion the negative form. This opposition, Fleming writes, runs counter to the rhetorical tradition, in which the two work in concert (516). Fleming notes that a search of CompPile he conducted finds mention of persuasion “declining precipitously” in college writing literature from the 1990s (516).

Fleming cites Kenneth Burke’s argument that persuasion is inherent in communication and defends persuasion through the claims of political scientist Bryan Garsten, who focuses on the role persuasion plays in democracy. Like Burke, Fleming writes, Garsten urges us to recognize the ubiquity of disagreement; for Garsten, persuasion requires respect for those with whom we disagree, including an awareness of their right to freely reject our claims. Acknowledging the legitimacy of persuasion, in Fleming’s view, validates our “situated capacity to judge controversial matters” rather than handing judgment over to “a sovereign public authority of some kind” like a monarch or “reason itself” (519-20). In Garsten’s words,

The presumption . . . that there is such a thing as persuasion that lies between manipulation and pandering . . . is the presumption of democratic politics. (qtd. in Fleming 520; ellipses in Fleming)

Fleming documents the rejection of persuasion in the Common Core State Standards, which provide benchmarks for English and math in preK-12 education. The Standards privilege argument defined as “a reasoned, logical way of demonstrating that the writer’s position, belief, or conclusion is valid” (qtd. in Fleming 522). Text from the ELA Standards, Fleming maintains, makes clear that arguing from ethos or pathos is inferior to arguing from logos—in Fleming’s view, dismissing “the key insight of Aristotelian rhetorical theory, that persuasive argument is a matter of ethos, pathos, and logos” (523; emphasis original).

Fleming explores online resources spreading the view that persuasion is to be avoided because of its appeal to the emotions rather than “facts, reasons, and evidence” (, qtd. in Fleming 524). Fleming contends that this distaste for persuasion may be a reaction to poorly designed timed writing prompts that asked students to take positions based entirely on subjective experience (527).

He expresses concern that few scholars in rhetoric and composition have addressed the “hyperlogical” slant driving current approaches to argumentation (528). Some have examined the fact vs. opinion binary that Fleming believes exacerbates the rejection of persuasion. Analyzing an NPR segment on a sixth-grade argument assignment, Fleming challenges the claim that “facts” can be opinion-free, contending instead that students will be better served in a polemic culture if they understand that “their arguments are always based on evidence that is itself always constructed, contingent, and debatable” (532).

The example in question presents students with two sets of opposing facts, in Fleming’s view failing students by not providing the tools to assess situations where both sides may be partially right or wrong (533). Moreover, in his view, students are not allowed to use appeals that would gain adherence in a real-world decision-making context. He argues that an opinion can be an embodied “judgment” resulting from joining argument and persuasion rather than uncoupling them (533-34).

Fleming sees persuasion as a form of communication that “tries to move others while still respecting their autonomy, that appreciates the legitimate role of character and emotion in human judgment and action” (535). Rejecting this art, he claims, can lead to a belief that anyone holding opposing views is in error, “even evil,” a situation “more ethically dangerous” than the vices attributed to persuasion (535).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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