We went to Indiana University. Grant wanted a terminal degree in Voice Performance, and I wanted one in Rhetorical Studies. We needed to go to a place that had both, and that narrows it down to the Midwest pretty quickly. There’s Northwestern (too expensive!) and Louisiana (too conservative!!). IU was an easy choice then.
But I did not get accepted into the Ph.D. program. I was told that the reason was that BJU wasn’t accredited and that my recommendation letters were “a little strange.”
They were. I read them. Ugh! The line that got me was: “. . . and when we were hiring her husband (a fine lyric tenor) to teach, we decided to hire her as well.” Wow. I mean, he is a fine, lyric tenor, but I thought I brought something to the table. ::shrug:: I wouldn’t have accepted me after that either.
That Spring we visited Bloomington for Grant to audition, and I met with the Speech-Comm Graduate Officer to explain that I still wanted to take classes “to get my foot in the door.” He said, “Don’t bother. Even if you do well, that’s no guarantee you’ll get in.”
I cried all the way home to South Carolina. My brother and another dear friend reassured me that he had to say that for legal reasons. The whole thing was very humbling and scary and lonely. I decided to still attend classes with several academic strikes against me as a “professional non-degree student.” Alone.
I worked like a dog. I read every assignment two and three times. Sure, sure — I had read a lot of the texts before, but everything seemed so new.
For instance, Plato’s Phaedrus, that exemplar of the best rhetoric in my previous world, is talking about that? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that before? It’s so obvious if you read the entire original dialogue. Plato, I had been taught in my sophomore philosophy class at BJU, was “the closest a pagan can come to being a Christian without converting.” Whuh?
Plato was actually the biggest and most satisfying target in those initial classes. Rhetoricians like to dismantle him because he was so pivotal in relegating us and our study to “mere” status. But countering his ideas had moral import because, to my peers and my profs, Plato was just a hop, skip and a goose-step away from fascism. They, too, often tied Plato to Christianity, and I knew that was not right even if my fundamentalist education taught me as much. Christ was different from all that, and I was determined to figure out how to express it.
Now my dear brother was several steps ahead of me in the dissing-Plato department and in the foregrounding-Christ mission. His dissertation at Ohio State was about ancient near-Eastern wisdom literature (think Solomon’s Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job with a side of its Egyptian and Babylonian counterparts) and its similarity to ancient Greek rhetoric texts. In other words, he proved, Solomon sounded a lot more like Protagoras than Plato. And the evidence is astounding. I was very slowly becoming less of just a giddy little-sister admirer to my brother’s persona and more of a giddy junior scholar to his ideas. That alone was a pretty cool transition.
So for me, Plato’s standing was crumbling. He was no longer the philosophical embodiment of Christianity like I’d been taught but, in fact, a rhetorical and religious nemesis.
And who’s the biggest contemporary advocate for a Platonic view of rhetoric? ::drumroll:: Richard Weaver. I admit that it startled me when my professor made fun of Weaver in class. This was the guy I knew the most about. Now my brother had already informed me of some of Weaver’s goofiest quirks — like he would only ride a train and never a plane because it was more connected to the earth and that he would still plow his fields up in Weaverville (!!), NC with a horse because it was more organic and that the only way anyone knew he was dead up at the U of Chicago was because he wasn’t sitting on the same bench at the same time eating his lunch like he had been every day for years previously. Talk about Aspergers!
But my prof’s anti-Weaver quip was something different, and I wanted to understand it. Our final exam for that class was to “intersect” three rhetoricians from our reading that semester to compare and contrast their ideas. I chose Gorgias (because he was a stinker), Richard Whately (because he was another fav from my previous life), and my old buddy Richard Weaver. I had real-life people in mind as I wrote that trialogue — Richard Weaver was best personified by his favorite advocate in my life, DeWitt Jones; Whately reminded me of my terribly practical, business-minded, self-made-man father-in-law; and Gorgias was my brother. To be honest, I think Gorgias gets the long end of that deal because I don’t like the guy that much, but Steve ranks pretty high on my admiration meter.
So what happens when a Platonist, an Aristotelian, and an Isocratean/Ciceronian talk? The Platonist keeps tripping over his own feet because he’s too busy looking for the meaning of life in the stars, the Aristotelian keeps insisting that we need to maintain the status quo because we’ll lose jobs, and Ciceronian jabs and pokes and laughs at the humanity in all of us while he tries to make new and better worlds with his words. At least, that’s what I tried to say in that final exam. Go read it for yourself.
It’s weird to read that final exam now. I was beginning to find what I wanted to find in higher education. The neat and tidy package my paleo-neo-theo-con curriculum delivered to me was too distilled and too naive. And I knew that the Left qua Left (that’s one of the things you learn to do in the Academy — throw in random Latin phrases to put your reader/listener off-kilter) didn’t have all the answers either. But the antagonism I was taught in Theoconsville was misplaced. My Left-leaning profs criticized Bill Clinton as much as I did. They were heavily critical of Modernity, and if I remember my fundamentalist history accurately enough, so was I. They weren’t the rank relativists I was told they were either. They believed there were moral hierarchies and admitted it. Their main criticism was focused on hubris, that self-serving pride that propped up foolish fictions which sends all of us to our doom.
It’s not the Right is completely wrong nor is the Left evil. Here’s what I said back then in response to a mind-blowing chapter by Richard Lanham:
Having spent the last ten years at a conservative Christian liberal arts university, I have experienced the Weak Defense firsthand. That subculture has grown out of both the humanist education and the current religious fundamentalism that Lanham describes (161). Outside of Scripture, what is considered good comes from what is privileged. Plato, that bastion of Western culture, is described as drawing as close to conservative Christian doctrine as a pagan can. Shakespeare is equally virtuous and considered a supporter of religious fundamentalism. These arguments are not made to justify Shakespeare or Plato, but to justify the subculture itself. The reasoning is, “if these pillars of our culture are essentially moral and if we are like them, then we must be good too.” When students question the curriculum (“Why should I study Shakespeare?”), the characteristic response is the Weak Defense (“Because he’s part of your liberal arts education.”). The winners that we study, whether Greek philosophers or English playwrights, dictate an absolute, objective reality.
By juxtaposing the Strong and the Weak Defenses of rhetoric, Lanham is defining his preference in terms of the other. The Weak Defense is from the likes of Plato and [Allan] Bloom who view truth as absolute, received, and stable. The Strong Defenders view truth as referential, human, and compliant. Offering no justification for this simplistic truth dichotomy, Lanham just assumes that it exists. Plato set the terms for our present view of the world and controls how Lanham sees reality. To Lanham, the Weak Defenders view truth as absolute and rhetoric as castrated; the Strong Defenders view truth as contingent and rhetoric as powerful. He assumes that the divine and the human are separate with neither influencing the other, just like the separation he criticizes in his opponents.
Perhaps there are other choices that see rhetoric as vital, subjective, and human, and truth as contingent yet divine. Truth is not then “handed down by God” (188) and flashed on the back of the cave for only a select few. Truth is with us and available within our perceptions, our culture, our rhetoric and is still divine. My Defense for rhetoric is obviously neither of Lanham’s Defenses. Strongly defending rhetoric within a conservative Christian subculture is not impossible. Language, as a human creation, is inherently subjective. Rhetoric and philosophy are intertwined and equal since both are human. Good can be multiple and divine with rhetoric as prominent and active. Appropriateness or wisdom becomes a conspicuous theme. Plato and Shakespeare are still important but not merely as a self-conscious justification for personal views. The Great Books and the not-so-Great Books are necessary to understand humanity and the constructing of a culture. Such a Defense addresses and celebrates rhetoric as a human creation and the divine as the Image in which we are made. Both are inextricably intertwined and symbiotic. This defense is as uncomfortable as the Strong Defense since it demands rhetorical scholars to reconsider the validity of Plato’s dichotomy and people to discern what is appropriate and good rather than assuming goodness from privilege. This Defense allows me to meld my scholarship with my culture; but, and perhaps more importantly, it requires a more creative and inclusive treatment of the many defenses to rhetoric.
Funny. This is no different than most of the stuff I taught at BJU from 2000-2007, and my students who are reading this know that.
But this is what I was looking for, what was missing in my paleo-neo-theo-con life. It’s not that the Left is completely right and wholly good. Not at all. It’s more that I needed to learn a second (cultural) language to help me understand my own native tongue.