In "Best in Class," what is Margaret Talbot's rhetorical strategy in examining Sarasota High School in such depth?Margaret Talbot spends a good deal of time at the outset of the essay describing...
In "Best in Class," what is Margaret Talbot's rhetorical strategy in examining Sarasota High School in such depth?
Margaret Talbot spends a good deal of time at the outset of the essay describing the situation at Sarasota High School, yet her primary subject is neither that school nor its students.
It is true that Margaret Talbot opens her essay, "Best In Class", examining the Sarasota High School's valedictorian "problem." In the end, the former principal, Daniel Kennedy, opened a charter school and refused to give out the honor of valedictorian based upon the peril he faced at SHS.
“My advice to other principals is, Whatever you do, do not name a valedictorian. Any principal who does is facing peril.”
While the focus on SHS basically ends here, Talbot goes on to mention the problems other high schools faced when determining a valedictorian.
While her "primary subject is neither that school [SHS] nor its students", Talbot is simply showing the issues that schools today face regarding the cut-throat fight to gain the title.
In the end, Talbot fails to offer her definitive opinion on the subject. Instead, she offers both alternative views:
In some ways, it seems that the valedictorian is a status designed for a simpler time, when fewer people aspired to college.
Still, perhaps something is lost if schools eliminate valedictorians.
By doing this, Talbot's rhetorical style is one of ethos. Ethos, according to Purdue's OWL website, is
the ethical appeal is based on the character, credibility, or reliability of the writer. There are many ways to establish good character and credibility as an author.
Here, the author is simply offering an objective point of view. The author is not offering up their own personal feelings on the subject. Instead, they offer both sides of the argument and shows respect to the reader by doing so.
Talbot’s look at the valedictorian issue—starting with a detailed look at how it has affected Sarasota High—has an important place in setting up the tone of the story and illustrating how complicated the issue is. After reading the essay in full, we know that Talbot focused her writing on this particular issue. But, knowing this now, how does Talbot’s story about SHS build up to her later discussion of the issue(s) as she sees it?
In terms of rhetorical strategy, she uses a bit of emotional appeal (“ethos”) in this first section, as she gives detailed descriptions of the “characters” involved in the SHS controversy to put a face to the issue.
This is important, as the article soon takes a broader view, and lawsuits, historical context, and perspectives on how other schools structure their GPA system are much less personal in their appeal to readers. (This use of factual examples and sources as support for Talbot’s look into the development of the valedictorian issue falls into the area of objective examples—a part of “logos”.)
For other ways to look at how the Sarasota High School story relates to/differs from the rest of the essay, you may want to take a close look at both the tone and pacing of this first section and compare it to the rest of the piece.
Talbot's rhetorical strategy is to start with a case study that proves her larger point. While her article does not only concentrate on the students in Sarasota High School, her examination of the pointless race for valedictorian in that school highlights the ways in which students are often engaged in meaningless competition.
Later in the article, Talbot cites a study that shows that while high school valedictorians go on to achieve graduate degrees and live well-established lives, they don't truly distinguish themselves in one field. They are well-rounded but do not necessarily excel. Her examination of Sarasota High Schools is an example for the readers of an extreme case of what she is trying to show—that students become obsessed with meaningless honors instead of caring about a passion that they can devote themselves to. By reading about the ridiculous race to be valedictorian in that school, which is in some ways an exaggeration of what is happening in other schools, readers can easily understand Talbot's larger point about meaningless academic competition.