Like a lot of writing teachers, I use Anita Garland’s essay, “Let’s Really Reform Our Schools” in my class. I like it because while it proposes something no on can argue with– better schools– it does so in a way that is rhetorically quite dubious. It’s basically a Fox News kind of argument, in which one group– “we”– is pitched against another: the “they” or “them.”
Even worse, the “we” or “us” is a very vague group of people “who only want the best for our children” (who wouldn’t want to be a part of that group?) and the “they” are both the so-called trouble makers (students who don’t want to be in school) and teachers, administrators, and policy makers who emphasize extracurricular activities over what Garland defines as academia.
In a nutshell, Garlands solution sounds simple: end the prom and minimize sports and other extracurricular activities, make attendance voluntary, and kick out the kids who don’t want to learn. It’s a mean-spirited, ugly set of ideas couched in a disingenuous populism. What I find fascinating is that my students seem unaffected by the essay’s scapegoating tendency or its complete lack of facts.
I can’t fault Garland for these strategies; they are a part of our cultural heritage. We all, to one extent or the other, create enemies in our arguments and too often we neglect facts. At times, we don’t need or want objectivity. Still, informed readers need to be able to understand that these sorts of arguments have strict limits. They don’t include the facts we need to make good decisions.
Garland’s style of argument has been carried to the extreme in Republican rhetoric over the so-called debt crisis. A certain amount of cheer leading is all part of the process. We need some reference to the facts, too. Even worst, what’s was once a Republican strategy has now become the political norm– the Democrats as just as guilty. Where are the facts on the size and history of the debt?