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I want to talk about DeWitt Jones. My teacher. My M.A. advisor. My boss for forever.

Now, I don’t know if Dr. Jones reads blogs. And I don’t want to embarrass him if he does. But I do need to gush a little. Not much. Just enough.

DeWitt Jones taught me how fun it is to read speeches by powerful dead white guys. And women. And live ones. And black ones too. He just liked civic discourse. He liked to watch how it changed stuff.

He taught me that Wade Hampton wasn’t just the name of a boulevard in Greenville.

He literally had a spring in his step the entire Reagan administration. Not because he voted for him (although he did). But because Reagan made it cool to teach speech again. Teaching Carter was such a drag with the sweaters and the fireplaces. ::yawn:: And the Malaise.

He told me that it would be good for me to study the early feminists even when some people violently scowled at the choice.

Now, DeWitt is no raving leftist in the politics department. Yes, he likes his NPR as much as the next academic. But Dr. Jones went to Louisiana to study American Public Address. He is Old School. Neo-Aristotelian. He got it hard core when studying dead white guys’ words wasn’t about the words at all. When context was king. Before all that new-fangled New Criticism messed us up (I say that good-naturedly since my academic path veered a different and “newer” direction after my M.A. with Dr. Jones).

And he distrusts political engagement. When our academic association (NCA) supported the ERA, he disengaged. He revoked his membership and never returned. His decision wouldn’t have been mine, but I understand it and respect it. He was consistent in his protests.


He showed me the Checkers speech for the first time. And explained why it was funny. . . . because of FDR’s Fala speech, of course.

And he loves FDR! But hates his policies.

Did you catch that? DeWitt Jones — that most Platonist of thinkers and most Aristotelian of critics and most sectarian of Christians and most conservative of ideologues — has enough generosity of spirit and mind to love a good speech when he hears it and still shudder at the ideology behind it.

That’s what you call a good egg.

I used to do an exercise in Freshman Speech when we’d talk about audience adaptation. I’d have a list of 5 speakers and 5 situations, and we’d imagine what would happen if . . . say, Oprah Winfrey spoke to a Kindergarten class. How would she adapt? What might she talk about? How would she speak differently than if she were talking to this college class?

The discussion was always profitable at BJU . . . until Bill Clinton became president. When I’d ask them what Bill Clinton would say if he came to talk to “this class,” they were stymied. They couldn’t fathom what this politician they detested could ever say to them.

I’m no Clinton fan, but I still find that odd. Are the boundaries between us that impermeable? Is there nothing that our political opponent could say to us as Americans that is of any value? Is being President that irrelevant?

And it doesn’t matter what the Democrats did or would do when G.W. Bush was president. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Every good fundamentalist knows that.

So it’s in the spirit of DeWitt Jones’ loving-the-speech-but hating-the-ideology 😉 that I’m going to offer some of my own discussion questions for Obama’s speech this Tuesday. The ed.gov‘s suggested discussion questions are lame, and others I’ve seen . . . well, they simply miss the mark. If I were conducting a college discussion, before viewing the speech I’d ask my students:

  • What have you heard about this speech?
  • Why do you think people find this controversial?
  • What are the consequences of that controversy? Where would that leave political discourse and the civic sphere if we followed the trajectory of that controversy?

After the speech, I’d ask:

We’ll be watching the speech at home whether or not my son’s teacher decides to show it in school. It’s fine if she doesn’t; I really do understand. And my questions for him, to be honest, will be taken from those above. Why shouldn’t they be?

It’s not about politics per se. It’s about judgment. And there’s a long history in rhetorical scholarship about how to judge. Ancient rhetoric, after all, was simply the study of wisdom. And it’s when we’re exposed to those with whom we might disagree — those who are not-us (which includes everyone) — that we learn how to be wise.

9 thoughts on “WWDJD?

  1. I agree completely!!! In fact I just posted on a message board I am a part of on a discussion about Obama’s speech. He is our president. Now you and I did vote for different people, but now Obama is my president. I don’t agree with all his politics but he isn’t evil- and he holds the office of my president. If my child was old enough to care I would let him listen and if there were points of disagreement we would talk about them. It is just ridiculous to me and makes those of us who claim the conservative title look ridiculous. I mean honestly I have been imaging the uproar from the right if President Bush had given a speech and schools had chosen not to show it. We need to at least be consistent.

  2. I like your questions better as serious questions, too, but then, most of mine (to which you linked ) were not intended to be a serious response to the President’s speech, but rather, sort of commentary on the Education Department’s attempts at indoctrination.

    1. Hey, DHM. 🙂 Well, that may be the result of two problems. One (and more likely), I missed your jab because I’m kind of dingy that way. Or two, we disagree on the purpose of education.

      As I study more of the conservative Evangelicalism since the 1970s, I’m realizing how dominant the idea that education = indoctrination has become. I’m beginning to remember all those sermons on the subject where that statement was emphasized over and over.

      It’s not that. It’s really not that. That’s like saying art is about politics. Political art is generally pretty ugly. And education that’s just about indoctrination is . . . well, not education.

  3. And… I would say, and thought I was saying, that the original study guide from the State dept of Education was not educational in nature, but was an attempt at indoctrination- or perhaps more accurately, mixed the two up too much, and asked closed ended questions and leading questions where open ended questions *without* a presumptive push towards a certain flavor of answer would have been better.

    I intended to ask leading questions of my own, as I plainly stated, to sort of mock by mirror image those of the Dept of edu (and that part I did not clearly state, and that’s my fault), but I also asked open ended, non presumptive questions, and really fail to see why reading the Constitution is seen as somehow shallow and reactionary (quoting a commenter I think you sent me).

    Mixing them up myself was probably really dumb. I should have divided up the post in two parts- but I did think readers would know the difference. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that it wouldn’t be that obvious to folk who aren’t regular readers, and, again, I probably didn’t do that as well as I would have liked anyway.

    I don’t think you have read enough of what I’ve written or know me at all well enough to presume to know what I believe about the purpose of education, but I am willing to be instructed. What do I believe is the purpose of education, and how do you know?

    1. I agree that the DoE’s questions were lame. Instead of assigning the sinister ideological intent, I assume that they were written by some graduate student flunkie who didn’t have a clue what s/he was doing. Discussion questions are usually lame. Like store-bought bread is usually foamy.

      I disagree that the majority of your questions were open. And I can’t speak for any other commenters. Ask them what they meant. I didn’t “send” anybody to you. Blog traffic is fun like that.

      As to your challenge to me to articulate your purposes of education, I’m fine with the existing ambiguity between us. 🙂

    2. Will? Is that who you mean? Will’s a good guy! College professor at Clemson. T.S. Eliot dude-extraordinaire. Passionate believer in Christ. Talk to him. Don’t talk to me. 🙂 He likes to talk. . . .

  4. Camille & Deputyheadmistress,

    I’m not sure if I was in mind or not, so I went back and responded to the commend after my own. Hadn’t realized anyone had responded. I don’t disagree with anything that I said earlier, and talked out a bit more of how I had come to those conclusions.

    Like Camille, I think & thought that the DoE questions were lame and a bit pushy. I would say, to be quite honest and fair to this entire discussion, that:
    • The DoE’s questions were just as much indoctrination (i.e., persuasion) as they were education.
    • Deputyheadmistress’s questions – which she substituted – were just as much indoctrination (i.e., persuasion) as they were education. In fact, they were even more strongly loaded questions than the DoE’s, as they were reacting to the perceived threat, and so came across as even more propaganda-driven than the original questions.

    But there is also a sense in which ALL questions used in education have a motivation behind them. The questions I ask my classes, for instance, are carefully selected, and designed to provoke a particular KIND of thought or discussion. I admit that, and hope any teacher would. The line between provocation and propaganda may be thin at some point along the spectrum, but I think both the DoE and Deputyheadmistress left that line far behind them in the questions that came out recently.

    all best to all of you!


  5. And when all the talking is over …

    I have a son who is a sophomore in college. In a field that’s, well, competitive. Very. At a school that’s one of the best in that field. And he says, “It’s HARD …” (Voice goes down) And we say, “Everything done well is hard.” And I pray God to give him wisdom and strength.

    Yesterday my husband emailed him President Obama’s speech. Last night, he said, “It’s hard! (Voice went up) But then President Obama said it would be!”

    Yesterday, for at least a few hours, my prayers were answered. With a little help from the President.

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