The Vocation of a Teacher

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

In The Vocation of a Teacher: Rhetorical Occasions 19674988, Wayne C. Booth collects seventeen public speeches, one essay, and a set of journal entries illustrating his work as an English teacher at the University of Chicago. All of these pieces are passionately concerned with the functions of English and of rhetoric in educational institutions, in American society, and in the modern world. He divides these pieces according to the audiences addressed. “To Students and Teachers Under Siege” includes five pieces presented to current and future English teachers in the context of recent indictments of American education. “To Our Various ’Publics”’ contains three speeches to nonteachers interested in American education. “To Assemblies of More or Less Restless Learners” includes four speeches to college and university students. “To Himself—And to Those He Tries to Teach” is a set of journal entries illustrating the day-to-day work of an English teacher. “Ceremonies” contains five speeches upon special occasions, and the epilogue reprints Booth’s 1987 Ryerson Lecture, “The Idea of a University—as Seen by a Rhetorician.” In his preface, Booth announces that his collection is in part a response to the widely publicized critiques of American education of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Though E. D. Hirsch, Allan Bloom, William Bennett, and others have been well-meaning in their diagnoses and prescriptions, Booth believes that they have tended to over-simplify both problems and solutions, and that the general public tends to see such problems in more seriously oversimplified terms. By looking closely at the situation from the inside of American higher education and by thinking hard about it, Booth shows that neither the problems nor the solutions are so simple as the American public tends to think. Furthermore, he shows that educators in America are struggling valiantly, as they have throughout history, and not without success, to pass on to future generations the most valued elements of human culture. Booth’s perspective on these problems is that of a rhetorician, one who studies the arts of communication. He is a believer in eternal truths, beauties, and goods, but skeptical of the human ability to produce permanently valid accounts of these. Therefore, training in rhetoric is essential for all who would seriously engage in questions about the meaning of human life, indeed for all who would live meaningfully. By means of precise and thoughtful communication, people create themselves and enter into that communion with one another from which arises provisional assent or agreement about the true, the beautiful, and the good. For Booth, the discussion of a literary or philosophical text is one of the ultimate occasions of such communion, when readers interact to arrive at statements of shared values.

Therefore, teaching English is one of the natural professions of the committed rhetorician. Booth introduces “To Students and Teachers Under Siege” by pointing out that college and university English departments have inherited the primary responsibility for passing on the arts of reading, thinking, writing, and speaking that are central to all culture. Public education never has and probably never will make all or even many high school graduates proficient in these arts. The one place in college where rhetorical arts are supposed to be taught systematically is in Freshman English. Because the teaching of these skills is so largely in the hands of English teachers and so often concentrated in a single college course, it is crucial that the teachers and designers of Freshman English be excellently trained and superior teachers.

The pieces Booth selects for this section examine a number of scandals in this area of American education. Addressing fellow teachers, and through them English department administrators and university officials, Booth chastises various powers in higher education for failing to value Freshman English as it should be valued. English teaching at all levels suffers from the shortsightedness encouraged by the buyer’s market of the 1970’s and 1980’s, which discouraged and wasted so many talented teachers and which drove out many of the best by failing to accord them appropriate dignity and salaries. Booth criticizes those features of the system that often place Freshman English in the hands of overworked, underpaid, part-time, apprentice teachers. How, he asks, can the educated citizens who pass through this course be persuaded of its value and thus support its improvement when they enter positions of public power if the university itself fails to take Freshman English seriously?

In the first section, Booth also defines and defends rhetoric as the...

(The entire section is 1933 words.)