Wayne C(layson) Booth Scott Elledge - Essay

Scott Elledge

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Wayne Booth does not predict in Now Don't Try to Reason with Me] how the great confrontation [between those who want to capture the universities and those who want to continue to hold them] will turn out. The revolutionaries' ammunition is inexhaustible, their potential numerical superiority overwhelming, and the fuel to feed their motives plentiful and explosive. The academic establishment's weapons (like those of the law) are few and cumbersome, its positions and strongholds almost untenable against current modes of attack, its ranks weakened by a few who wish they were young enough to be fighting with the guerrillas, and its reactionary supporters on the outside even more dangerous than its professed enemies. Booth's hope is that the voice of reason and the sheer love for the exercise of reason will retain the appeal they have always held for civilized women and men, and that the universities will soon become once again quiet, apolitical sanctuaries for students, teachers, and scholars….

It's the tone of the argument that gives distinction to this collection of essays and academic addresses, for Professor Booth's earnestness is graced by wit, irony, and generous humor. And if his case for reason, reasonable discourse, and the disinterested quest for truth consists mainly of the classical arguments that are most effective with those who share his assumptions, it is nevertheless a persuasive case by virtue of what Aristotle called "ethical proof," a form of persuasion that derives from a speaker's ability to win his audience by sounding like a good man who knows what he's talking about. Revolutionaries, in their hatred and sense of outrage and urgency, may not be able to hear him. But many of his uncertain colleagues in the academic world will listen and be encouraged to keep their trust in the humane power of reasonable rhetoric, to act with the authority of professors who know their subject and believe in its worth, and to stick to their own game, played by their own demanding rules. (p. 32)

Scott Elledge, "Rhetorical Rearmament," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1971 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 164, No. 5, January 30, 1971, pp. 31-2.