What are some appeals to logos in Francine Prose's essay, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read"?
In setting up the premise of her essay—that today’s high school English classes are largely flawed in both material and teaching method—Prose aims to connect these two issues to her conclusion that these practices are damaging to students’ understanding and appreciation of literature.
To make clear how damaging this practice is, she sets up an attempt at appeal through logic and reason (logos) at the end of the essay’s very first paragraph. Interestingly, there are, in fact, holes in her logic.
Prose states, “Traditionally, the love of reading has been born and nurtured in high school English class—the last time many students will find themselves in a roomful of people who have all read the same text and are, in theory, prepared to discuss it.” She tries to raise the stakes here of the importance of proper English class teaching in high school; however, her claim that high school is the “last time many students will find themselves in a roomful of people who have all read the same text” is problematic.
While it is true that students who complete high school and do not attend college will miss out on higher level literature courses and that of those who do attend college only a small subset of students (English majors) will actively pursue English classes, most collegiate programs require a program (usually within the freshman or sophomore year) of lower-level courses, as a general academic survey, ranging from sciences to philosophy to mathematics, regardless of the student’s desired major. This includes English courses—nearly all college students, willing or not, will be required to take some sort of foundational English course as a requirement for their degree. Furthermore, even courses not explicitly labeled as English courses will frequently bring “literary” material into their syllabus to round out standard textbook readings.
Ironically, Prose later puts another hole in her claim that high school English is often the last stop on a student’s meaningful reading and group discussion of assigned literature. She cites her extensive research into high school courses that showed her that the skill of close reading is often cast aside: “Only rarely do teachers propose that writing might be worth reading closely.” She carries this over to her own anecdotal experience teaching undergraduate and graduate students, saying she often has students who “are nearly incapable” of using close reading strategies to better understand literature.
While this adds emphasis to how improper high school English education can hamper a student’s future abilities, even carrying over to college, this contradicts her previously established claim that high school is the final stage of English education (remember her saying high school is “the last time many students will find themselves in a roomful of people who have all read the same text”).
These two appeals using logos are flawed—the first by using false assumptions as a core part of her main argument and the second by contradicting the first.
Before one analyzes Prose's essay for her use of logos, it is necessary to understand her thesis. Prose argues that both the low quality of books selected for study in American schools and the dumbed-down methods for teaching classic books don't inspire in students a desire for reading literature.
Logos is the technique of persuading an audience through the application of logic and reason to the argument.
In "I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read," Prose makes a claim of value: the purpose of studying literature is to learn and appreciate "the powers of language [to] connect us, directly and intimately, with the hearts and souls of others" and not "to make us examine ourselves." To logically support her claim, Prose cites, for example, the folly of a lesson plan when teaching The Diary of Anne Frank that asks students to gather the items they'd want to take with them if they found themselves in the situation of Jews moved to ghettos and concentration camps.
For the part of her argument about schools opting for novels of dubious quality, Prose first establishes that "lightweight and mediocre" novels are those that reduce human behaviors and reactions to them as "good and bad" and then cites that that kind of thinking produces the simplistic observation that in To Kill a Mockingbird, "Scout and Atticus are good, their bigoted neighbors are bad."
Appeals to logos are arguments that are meant to persuade through logic. This is in contrast to those arguments taht appeal to pathos, trying to win emotional sympathy. In this essay by Prose, there are many places in which she tries to win us over with logic and reasoned argument.
One example of this is where Prose gathers the reading lists from some eighty or so high schools around the country. She notes which works are read most often, thus providing factual data to support her contention about what sorts of things high school students are reading.
Another example of this comes when Prose tells us about the purpose for which literature is being taught. She cites, for example, the San Francisco Board of Education's requirement that literature be taught in a way that will reflect the diversity of the community. By telling us this, she lays the basis for her argument that literature is being taught in the wrong way and that this sort of teaching is turning students off to serious literature.