An Open Letter to the California Association of Scholars/Freshman Composition Exercise

When I was a graduate student at UC-Irvine, one of my most valuable teaching experiences was as a section leader in the Humanities Core Course, a double-credit class that fulfills an important General Education requirement for undergraduates. For many students, it is the only significant exposure to the humanities, arts and humanistic social sciences they receive, so the pressure on us to arm them with crucial critical-thinking, info-processing, and written expression skills is great.

When I was there, students’ first major assignment was to read a section of the Rhetoric, and in doing so learn about two important things concurrently: a foundational text in Greek philosophy, and a valuable tool for analyzing the fine art of persuasion. As their first major assignment, they were tasked with reading a text (in my day it was by Francis Bacon) and analyzing its persuasiveness on the basis of Aristotle’s three magical (wait, they weren’t magical?) components of rhetoric:

  • Ethos, or “the speaker’s power of evincing a personal character which will make his speech credible;”
  • logos, or “his power of proving a truth, or an apparent truth, by means of persuasive arguments;”
  • and pathos, or “his power of stirring the emotions of his hearers.” (Ethics 2)

Aristotle’s argument—vastly distilled—is that the successful “art of rhetoric” needs to employ primarily ethos and logos, for simple pathos, or “appeals [entirely] to the emotions,” serve to “warp the judgment” of the audience. (Ethics 1)

An Op-Ed in the May 24, 2012 LA Times, by John M. Ellis and Charles L. Geshekter–President and Chairman of the California Association of Scholars, a self-identified conservative think tank and watchdog group concerned with eradicating left-wing bias on California’s public university campuses and in classrooms–seeks to persuade readers that the UC system’s professoriate, disproportionately liberal to begin with, has now substituted “radical” activism for legitimate scholarship, the result being a further contribution to today’s college graduates being woefully underprepared (critical-thinking-skills-wise) for the real world.

As it seeks to persuade a readership, it can be classified as rhetoric, and so I would like to analyze its effectiveness as such in the same manner my freshmen in HumCore did (with a great degree of success, I might add). Since Aristotle certainly counts as a “classic” (of not the classic) of Philosophy, I hope that Ellis, Geshekter and their colleagues at the CAS might recognize this as a legitimate critique of their rhetoric, one not steeped in left-wing bias (I am, of course, lovingly caressing a first edition of Das Kapital with my left foot while I’m writing this, but that’s nobody’s business but mine and the Internet’s).

The use of Aristotle—which again, several thousand UC-Irvine freshmen read successfully and with great engagement every year—is especially apt, given the CAS’s stated concern that the current University of California system has an “absence of core curricula or other requirements ensuring a well-rounded education.”

Ethos, as Aristotle mentioned before, addresses the credibility of the speaker. Ellis and Gershekter’s byline identifies them as leaders of the CAS, whose stated mission is dedicated to “reform in higher education,” specifically with respect to their stated concern about current “perspectives within the academy that reflexively denigrate the values and institutions of our society.” The statement continues: “Because such tendencies are often dogmatic in character and indifferent to both logic and evidence, they undermine the basis for coherent scholarly dialogue.”

Thus, it appears that Ellis and Geshekter are themselves concerned about an imbalance of pathos and lack of logos in the current university classroom, thus lending them a decent degree of credibility as speakers.

However, the speaker’s credibility is best determined by his or her record of published work (for example, my own record of published work would render me a qualified expert on Franz Kafka but not on sushi-making techniques; maybe that was a bad example since sushi is a food from fer’ners, so Ellis might disqualify it on principle, but you get my drift).

Ellis’ two most recent published monographs (he is retired) are Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997) and Against Deconstruction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). Those are two very bad-ass presses, so, his ethos grade again climbs. He was also at one point, holy shit, a well-known scholar in my very own field, and has an old published paper on Kafka’s “Das Urteil” (The Judgment) that I cite in my very own (forthcoming) book.

So, again, things are looking good for Ellis’s ethos. Until you look a bit closer—does Ellis want to reform the academy to include all points of view, including that of John Ellis, which is presently being excluded (largely because John Ellis no longer himself teaches)? Or does the CAS want to de-corrupt the Humanities by returning them to an alleged era of pre-1960s glory when the Western canon was the only one taught?

If his main argument is that too many UC courses have an agenda, then what does his own possession of an equally-clear agenda do to his ethos? Unfortunately, it neutralizes it, rendering him exactly the same as his counterparts on the Left. It also then reduces his argument to a personal one—too many fucking pinkos in my department (UC Santa Cruz, where by the way I would give any number of body parts to teach, including and especially the left foot with which I am now caressing Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth).

So, if I were to give the ethos of the Op-Ed a grade based on Ellis’ record (as it should be, since he is the more entrenched scholar of the two, or was at any rate before he retired on what I am fairly certain is an extraordinarily cushy old-school UC pension), that grade would be my students’ personal least-favorite, a B- (no grade inflation in my world, Ellis! You should be proud. Also because my Kafka scholarship is the motherfucking BOMB, my dude. It is, I would even dare to say, better than yours, woo ha!).

Pathos. This one is fairly easy—Ellis and Gesheker are pissed off, and they know exactly which buttons of their audience members to push in order to get them pissed off. “The politicized university is an intellectually bankrupt one,” they claim screedily, and for evidence (another thing we command our students to produce when they have a claim), they cite courses such as UC Merced’s History 131, “which proposes that students study ‘the way in which the U.S. has aggressively expanded its role on the world stage,’” and UCSB’s Feminist Studies 230, which, unsurprisingly given its name is not Ladies Being Proper Man-Worshipping Ladies Studies 230, examines the “‘experiences of women of color, both within the U.S. and globally, with interlocking systems of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia/transphobia, ableism and colonialism’.” These course descriptions are custom-employed to incense an audience that is either already receptive to a conservative worldview that takes Dolores Umbrage at such things as characterizing the US as an aggressor, or focusing on the experiences of minority women (a demographic decidedly absent from both curricula and campus in the early 1960s, when Ellis earned his PhD–in ENGLAND, might I add!!! Lessened ethos, they’re our MORTAL ENEMIES from the Revolutionary War!). Thus (as my students would say), I conclude that Ellis and Geshekter are adequately hot under their perfectly-starched-by-a-non-immigrant-employee collars, and definitely succeed in stirring the heart of both the already-conservative and the centrist who tends to get annoyed at the “politically correct” (a subject on which Ellis has also published). Pathos: A. No need to grade-grub on your pathos, gents, it’s excellent.

Logos. Now, I’ve made the beginnings of my “claim” (that, kurz gesagt, Ellis and Geshekter’s rhetoric is problematic), and the onus is upon me to back it up with “evidence.” That comes in the form of an analysis of the content of Ellis and Geshekter’s arguments in the piece. Let’s look at the beginning:

Political advocacy corrupts academic institutions. Why? Because the mind-set of a genuine academic teacher is in every important respect the opposite of a political activist’s. Academic teachers want to promote independent thought and analytical skills; political activists want conformity. The one fosters intellectual curiosity and encourages opposing viewpoints; the latter seeks to shut it down.

As anyone who had to take the written part of the GRE knows (otherwise known as the Make Everyone Feel Like a Genius Test, as I know literally nobody who did not get a 6 out of 6 on it), an important part of scholarship is unearthing logical fallacies, and, lucky me, here’s a good one. What Ellis and Geshekter have done here is set up a “false dichotomy,” setting up two possibilities: the activist-scholar and the “pure” scholar; the former is poison to universities for the reasons then elaborated in the paragraph.

The problem is that this dichotomy does not actually exist: is “the mind-set of a genuine academic teacher…in every important respect the opposite of a political activist’s”? Well, if one believes that “political activists want conformity,” then sure, but it was my understanding (and Dr. Wikipedia’s as well), that “activism consists of intentional efforts to promote, impede or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change.”

So even if all professors at UC-Berkeley were activists (let’s even give them this, for the exercise), their alleged goal would be to promote OR impede (the very broad concept of some sort of) change, not conformity. Why does change necessitate conformity? The “change” every academic actually wants to implement is the student’s change from not having read or understood the reading to having read and understood it. We are activists in that we actively want people to read and understand texts, and to develop their critical thinking skills, whether those skills are used to build a bridge or re-read Atlas Shrugged for the twenty-jabillionth time.

Since the entire argument of the Op-Ed rests on the legitimacy of this dichotomy, the whole thing falls apart when the dichotomy is revealed as false. An activist does not necessarily want conformity, so even if all academics are activists, the argument that these activists can spare enough time from their harried schedule of prepping, teaching, and publishing publishing publishing or field work field work field work field work to force students to “conform” to whatever personal views they might have is based on a faulty premise. A “straw man argument,” if you will.

There are many more such logical problems in this piece, but I have shit to do with my life and this has already gone on too long, so I give their logos a D-, the worst grade EVER, because it means they can’t repeat the course and have to have that lowest possible passing grade on their imaginary Schuman transcript forever and immer und ewig.

So, by Aristotelian criteria, the only strong element of this Op-Ed is pathos; thus, it serves not to make an effective persuasive point, but merely to appeal to the emotions of its audience and warp their judgment. I’d write a sufficient conclusion, but I’m now busy caressing Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and I want to give it my full attention.

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