The field of rhetoric wouldn’t exist without teachers. We have survived because of a tradition of strong teachers for thousands of years, now. And our foundations are teachers, too. The people who first developed what would become rhetoric, who shaped and molded the very basics of the discipline, were teachers who wanted to pass on their ideas to students in order to do something good for their community. Rhetoric depends on teachers. So it makes sense that rhetoricians have a vested interest in the way teachers at large are treated.
In the beginning we were entirely dependent on teachers. They were the ones who developed rhetoric as a theory and spread it as a subject.
The Sophists in general were some of the original rhetoric teachers par excellence. The Sophists were a collective of itinerant teachers that traveled around Greece sharing the art of rhetoric to those who were often left out of formal education systems. Although certainly some of them were acquainted, they weren’t organized, and they didn’t necessarily teach similar philosophies. But they did share a common goal to teach practical knowledge. Young men would be sent to the Sophists to learn the art of rhetoric. They would be expected to give speeches and watch their teacher deliver great speeches. The actual teachings of the Sophists were pretty practical and technical – they would focus on rules and style and what to do with the voice and body. Their teaching focused on the everyday reality of Greek life. They helped new classes of people acclimate to democratic participation. They were scholars of everyday life who made their living helping out people who were walled out of formal education. By that I mean, the Sophists were willing to teach anyone who could pay for it. This doesn’t seem like a big deal today, but it had a major effect on the Greek world. Before that education was only available to the aristocracy. The Sophists made education available to anybody with the financial resources to pay for it. So access to education wasn’t restricted to birthright. This didn’t democratize education by opening it up to the masses, but it did open up the door a bit.
Then there was Isocrates. Isocrates came from a wealthy family, so he was well educated, but he didn’t get any inheritance, so he became a speechwriter for wealthy Athenians. He desperately wanted to take a leading role in the affairs of Athens, but he couldn’t. For one thing, he had a weak voice and was unable to be hard by large groups of people outdoors, and that was how the Athenian assembly conducted business. Secondly, he had terrible speaking anxiety. So there were some basic practical reasons Isocrates couldn’t take part in Athenian government. So at age 43 he decided to do what he saw as the next best thing – he would train his city’s future leaders. He founded a school of speech which was the first permanent institution of higher learning in his native city. For over fifty years he single-handedly ran this school. He tutored as many as 100 students at a time, sharing his ideas for what it means to be a future leader of Athens and the Greek world, and he became the foremost speech teacher of the ancient world.
But Aristotle is probably the most famous and important teacher of rhetoric in the history of the West. If you have ever taken a public speaking class or been taught how to write a persuasive essay, it is very likely that you have had some basic Aristotelian training. Aristotle was educated at Plato’s Academy. He was trained as a field biologist. He was an expert at observing and describing all living and nonliving things and in classifying that kind of data for the use of others. The whole Greek world was his laboratory. So, we find works of law, political science, ethics, drama, and science by Aristotle. For Aristotle, rhetoric was the art of effective speaking. His work was comprehensive and is probably the single most important rhetorical piece ever written.
Quintilian was a Roman teacher who kept the rhetorical tradition going throughout the classical period. He believed a teacher should have certain intellectual, moral, and pedagogical qualities. And the role of the teacher was to guide his pupils, in his case boys into manhood.
Quintilian advised the teacher to apply different teaching methods according to the different characters and abilities of his pupils; he believed that the young should enjoy their studies and know the value of play and recreation; he edagainst the danger of discouraging a pupil by undue severity; he makde an effective criticism of the practice of corporal punishment; he depicted the schoolmaster as taking the place of a parent. “Pupils,” he wrote, “if rightly instructed regard their teacher with affection and respect. And it is scarcely possible to say how much more willingly we imitate those we like.”
In more recent times, Quintilian appears to have made an upward turn. He is frequently included in anthologies of literary criticism, and is an integral part of the history of education. He is believed to be the “earliest spokesman for a child-centered education” which is discussed under his early childhood education theories. As well, he has something to offer students of speech, professional writing, and rhetoric, because of the great detail with which he covers the rhetorical system. His discussions of tropes and figures also formed the foundation of contemporary works on the nature of figurative language, including the post-structuralist and formalist theories.
As we have discussed on this podcast before, Early schools focused more on the virtue of family, religion, and community than they did reading and math. Schools were often the purview of religious organizations. But the first American public school opened in 1653 in Boston. It is still open today. Public schools were not common in the South until after Reconstruction.
Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an avid proponent of public education. He believed it was important for a functional democracy (Thomas Jefferson made similar arguments during this time period). Rush’s ideas about education may SOUND harsh, but in reality, are they that far afield from practice? In his 1786 piece Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, Rush argued that “Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.” He also argued that, “In the education of youth, let the authority of our masters be as absolute as possible. The government of schools like the government of private families should be arbitrary, that it may not be severe. By this mode of education, we prepare our youth for the subordination of laws and thereby qualify them for becoming good citizens of the republic. I am satisfied that the most useful citizens have been formed from those youth who have never known or felt their own wills till they were one and twenty years of age.”
Common schools entered the scene in the 1800s. A common school was a public school in the United States during the 19th century. Common schools originated in New England as community funded instruments of education for all children of the neighborhood. These secondary schools furthered the Puritan conformity of the area by instilling religion into the curriculum for the purpose of re-enforcing good morals and obedience in the populace. Common schools typically taught “the three Rs” (reading, [w]riting, and [a]rithmetic), history, and geography. There was wide variation in regard to grading (from 0-100 grading to no grades at all), but end-of-the-year recitations were a common way that parents were informed about what their children learned. The common school intention would equip every child with moral instruction. The emphasis on morality remained a strong element of education. The common school era is viewed by many education scholars to have ended around 1900 (See Wikipedia for this and more information). In the early twentieth century, schools generally became more regional (as opposed to local). This led to the school system that is in place throughout most of America today. The common schools were basically a place where students memorized information and learned virtue and moral lessons. They were designed not to make good thinkers or leaders, but obedient citizens, and as industry progressed, good workers.
Common schools, as school in America always had, taught obedience and respect for authority and the law, and other virtues of citizenship. As we have noted in previous podcasts, by the 20th century some education reformers began to question that orthodoxy, but the design and philosophy for school had been at work for generations – school was a place to discourage non-conformity and police behavior. Even the pedagogy encouraged sameness – recitations and memorization encouraged everyone to have the same outcomes.
So teaching in America has gone through a certain bit of evolution. According to an article from Buffalo State College,
In 1600s and 1700s America, prior to the first and second Industrial Revolutions, educational opportunity varied widely depending on region, race, gender, and social class.
Public education, common in New England, was class-based, and the working class received few benefits, if any. Instructional styles and the nature of the curriculum were locally determined. Teachers themselves were expected to be models of strict moral behavior.
By the mid-1800s, most states had accepted three basic assumptions governing public education: that schools should be free and supported by taxes, that teachers should be trained, and that children should be required to attend school.
The term “normal school” is based on the French école normale, a sixteenth-century model school with model classrooms where model teaching practices were taught to teacher candidates. In the United States, normal schools were developed and built primarily to train elementary-level teachers for the public schools.
The article continues,
Earlier normal schools were reserved for men in Europe for many years, as men were thought to have greater intellectual capacity for scholarship than women. This changed (fortunately) during the nineteenth century, when women were more successful as private tutors than were men.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, newly industrialized European economies needed a reliable, reproducible, and uniform work force. The preparation of teachers to accomplish this goal became ever more important. The process of instilling in future citizens the norms of moral behavior led to the creation of the first uniform, formalized national educational curriculum. Thus, “normal” schools were tasked with developing this new curriculum and the techniques through which teachers would communicate and model these ideas, behaviors, and values for students who, it was hoped, through formal education, might desire and seek a better quality of life.
In the United States, normal schools were developed and built primarily to train elementary-level teachers for the public schools. In 1823, Reverend Samuel Read Hall founded the first private normal school in the United States, the Columbian School in Concord, Vermont. The first public normal school in the United States was founded shortly thereafter in 1839 in Lexington, Massachusetts. Both public and private “normals” initially offered a two-year course beyond the secondary level, but by the twentieth century, teacher-training programs required a minimum of four years. By the 1930s most normal schools had become “teachers colleges,” and by the 1950s they had evolved into distinct academic departments or schools of education within universities.
Many of us are familiar with what happened in the late 20th and moving into the 21st century. There was a renewed emphasis on standardized testing and programs like No Child Left Behind radically altered the way education in the US was done.
John A. Tures writes,
But there are two fundamental reasons why NCLB showed so few gains, especially as compared to the pre-standardized testing era. As a student from that era, standardized tests held me accountable. If I did poorly in class and on those tests, I had to repeat the material over the summer, losing a big chunk of sports, play time and relaxation. NCLB took responsibility away from the students and put it on the teachers and administrators. That’s why you see teacher and principal cheating scandals that you never used to ever see, as documented by the Freakonomics team. “You have to pass me no matter what,” a slacking student told my wife, a teacher, years ago in a public school as she tried to motivate him to do better. “The law says ‘no child left behind.’”
The second problem with standardized testing is that standardized tests are only one tool of judging student success and far from being the best one in the shed. Many of our students admit that they’ve written few essays and papers before coming to college due to a steady diet of standardized tests. Such assignments don’t help with performance tasks and active learning assignments. Think how much of your daily life is actually assisted by skill you can demonstrate on a standardized test.
Take the case of Singapore, also listed by the Pew Research Center as scoring the best in international tests. For the sake of comparison, the U.S. is below average in math and about average in science and reading (as in the average of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or developed world). Yet Singapore looks enviously at Silicon Valley, unable to produce its own. The best tech startups are created abroad. Children are taught to be “learning machines” but not innovators. The system, with its emphasis on drilling, is found to undermine creativity. As the United States seeks to emulate Singapore’s performance on “STEM” standardized tests, imagine how many mathematicians and scientists we’ll lose in the process.
The craft of teaching is constantly developing. Sometimes it evolves organically, because the experts recognize things need to get better, but sometimes it changes because it is responding to outside forces. In the last few years we have seen teaching and pedagogy radically change in response to external forces – legislation and political forces have been shaping the field of education drastically and radically.
Just in the last two years teachers have been through the wringer.
In the beginning of the pandemic teachers were everybody’s heroes. People lauded them for stepping up to the plate and doing the jobs that nobody else could or would do. They were leading and taking care of our children in new and creative ways and we thought they deserved the moon. A lot of that was probably due to the fact that many parents were stuck at home with their kids for the first time and were expected to be educators of some variety and were faced with the fact that teachers do this five days a week with 25-40 kids and suddenly had an epiphany about what exactly goes on in a day at school. And anybody who could get the kids out of the house at that point would be a legend. So teachers were elevated to damned heroes.
That lasted for all of about two weeks before teachers were denigrated to ultimate villains.
Once schools went online and teachers running classes virtually, they got knocked off that pedestal real quickly. Suddenly teachers were incompetent, and lazy and just didn’t want to do their jobs. Angry parents, pundits, and politicians everywhere harangued teachers for doing their jobs virtually and argued that they weren’t really working, they were just phoning it in online. Any teacher could tell you they were working twice as hard during this period as they ever had before, but people weren’t interested in what teachers had to say. They just saw teachers as working from home or not actually being with their students and that meant they weren’t actually working. Teachers were demoralized, denigrated, and dissatisfaction with the job started to spread like wildfire throughout the field. This of course, added to the narrative that teachers were unfit for their jobs because of the next point it is important to understand about teachers, and that is:
What teachers are expected to sacrifice for their jobs.
Unlike almost any other profession, teachers are expected to make personal sacrifices for their jobs. They are expected to love their job, this calling, so much, that no sacrifice is to great for the gig. First, we expect them to sacrifice their time. Teaching is a 40 hour a job week. And that’s just being on campus. But anyone with any common sense recognizes that being on campus is only half the job. There is grading, lesson planning, writing letters of recommendation, and meetings with parents and admin after hours. And none of that is compensated. The truth is, we don’t even pay teachers as well as babysitters. Baby-sitters get about $15/hour. If a teacher got paid that much per kid per in person hour they’d get over $90,000 a year. And that’s with a small class. But we don’t pay teachers as well as baby-sitters. We tell them to get a degree, sometimes two, tell them they have to become experts, then strip them of their agency, and depending on where you live, pay them so little they have to get extra jobs to make ends meet.
We expect them to sacrifice their resources. They have to buy their own supplies – from furniture to crayons. If you’ve ever seen a classroom organized into cute little stations and made into a reading corner and a science corner then that teacher spent a pretty penny to get that room ready. There aren’t very many other jobs where we expect people to buy their own supplies for their work that aren’t MLMs. Teachers provide class supplies and books and bean bag chairs and decorations for the class and it all comes out of their own pocket. And in most places their pockets aren’t that deep. But this is just a sacrifice they’re supposed to be willing to make because of their love of the game.
Perhaps the most dark thing we expect of teachers, is that we expect them to sacrifice their lives for our children. If something goes wrong in the classroom, something like a shooting or a disaster, we expect teachers to be the hero and lay down their lives to protect their students. We expect the ultimate sacrifice from people we won’t even pay decent wages to or give basic job supplies to.
And that, of course, leads me into another big problem, and that is how much we trust teachers. We expect teachers to put their lives on the line for our kids. But we don’t trust them to know what to teach them? There are people who want to ARM teachers. They want to trust teachers with firearms in the classroom. But they don’t trust teachers to know what books are appropriate for the classroom?
What the hell is going on here?
Do you trust teachers or not?
You can’t trust teachers with your students’ lives – choosing to arm your teachers and expecting them to die for your kids- but then turn around and tell them you don’t trust them to design a curriculum. That’s nonsense.
The treatment of teachers is important to rhetoricians because rhetoric survives by the efforts of good teachers. That 6th grader who thinks, “You know, writing is kind of cool,” or that high schooler who gets drawn in by the debate team or their speech class is the future of my discipline. We care about our teachers. We depend on them.
So the current turn of events is very unsettling. This tendency to see teachers as an enemy force is scary. Not just because it is bad for my field, but because it spells disaster for democracy in general. Public education is the backbone an operational democratic republic. If you demonize teachers, there’s not a lot of hope for public education. But that may well be the goal, here. To make public education distasteful enough that it becomes unwanted and move toward a privatized model.
So speak up for teachers. Support them politically and personally. It’s not just my field that depends on it. It’s democracy.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.