Comprehension vs Rhetoric in terms of implications on Democracy

My childhood education is modern as opposed to classical.   In terms of English, modern education focuses on reading, writing, and comprehension.    Common Core takes this approach but with a fixed program that dictates that this education process is stretched over 13 years (K-12).   There is even some talk to answer disappointing progress by extending this to nearly 20 years of pre-K to 16 (covering the first four years in college).

Recently, I’ve been reviewing the classical trivium that approaches language as grammar, logic, and rhetoric.    Certainly, the homework still involves reading, writing, and comprehension.   But these are not explicitly goals in themselves.  The goals of the Trivium are much more in the mechanics of constructing and deconstructing arguments from the basics of grammar, through the patterns of logic, and finally through the application in rhetoric.

The trivium was once considered a standard that ideally should be expected by all citizens: people who participate in government even if only as voters.

When I was in school, I was led to believe that the trivium is identical to reading, writing, and comprehension.  It was only that the word itself is archaic and not as descriptive.

Comprehension is fundamentally different than argumentation.

The change from a classical approach to a modern approach overlaps with the introduction of compulsory education in US and that overlaps with the industrial revolution.   The goals of education changed over this period to put more emphasis on increasing productivity of people, to make them more usable in industry.   Today, discussions about higher education seem to assume that this is the number one priority: that education should result in a job, a high paying job, a productive job.

Comprehension is a valuable skill for productive employable population.  It is the skill to be able to read an instruction manual, to read texts describing specialized technologies and their practices, and to read study material for standardized tests to earn certifications.

Today, in technical fields, there is a high premium placed on having the latest certifications.  In order to keep one’s labor relevant to the market, a person needs strong comprehension skills to study for and pass standardized tests to verify absorption of an accepted body of knowledge.

The trivium also resulted in students who mastered reading, writing, and comprehension.  The difference was that these skills were learned through practice and exercise must like one learns good penmanship or voice control in public speaking.   Homework or tests in grammar, logic, and rhetoric implicitly demanded developing skills in reading, writing, and comprehension.

If comprehension was the only goal, then there is a benefit to removing the unnecessary additional burden to learn constructing and deconstructing arguments (at the various levels of grammar, logic, and rhetoric).   I personally think that the goals of the Trivium provides a motivation for reading, writing, and comprehension.   Competitive argumentation makes the learning much more interesting and the desire to build winning arguments can provide a deeper motivation than the rote preparation for mere passing of a standardized test.   But the trivium burdens the teachers with skills of encouraging students who otherwise would be discouraged by the competitive nature of argumentation in order to meet the goals described as “no child left behind”.

Compared to basic reading, writing, and comprehension,  teaching the trivium requires much more skill by the teacher.

In modern enterprises (in my attempt to unify teaching with industry), there is a principle of continued optimization of two principles.  The first is that the labor and tools are best qualified for the job at hand.  The other is that the requirements of the job are minimized to the greatest extent possible to allow for the most affordable, most readily available labor and tools.

In education, this process may have seen the additional goals of constructing and deconstructing arguments as expendable in the interests of efficient staffing of the necessary number of teachers to teach all of the students.

If this decision was made, I don’t see much evidence that it was debated publicly.   It was like some carpenter deciding for himself that the instruction to include glue as well as nails as unnecessary because nails seem strong enough and he is out of glue.  

No one asked what is the value of a broad appreciation for constructing and deconstructing arguments.  

What every person needs  is the ability to read instructions, understand laws, memorize material for standardized tests.  He needs it in order to become a productive law-abiding citizen.

Constructing and deconstructing arguments is a specialty skill for those who are producing the material that the rest of the population will be asked to comprehend.   These specialists include scientists, lawyers, and policy makers.

The problem is the we left out of this list of specialist the informed citizen participating in democracy.   A successful strong democracy requires a voting population that is well informed not just of the comprehension of different proposals, but of the very structure of the arguments.   A democracy demands from the citizens its ability to separate good arguments from bad arguments.  In particular, we need everyone to be able to identify flaws or fallacies of grammar, logic, or rhetoric.  A poor quality argument should be an alarm to the citizen.  The side with the poor quality argument may be ill prepared or may be deliberately deceiving.   The reward of finding a flawed argument is to demand that someone else replace the arguer so that someone else can present the case more carefully.

A population should demand that both sides present very high quality arguments covering the full range of grammar, logic, and rhetoric before the argument can be considered ready for a decision.

I fear we lost that skill in the voting population.   I understand that if we had it before it was because we severely restricted the class of citizens qualified to participate.   But we could have expanded the participation of the citizens without diluting the basic need that they be prepared to demand good arguments before they will cast their votes.

By analogy, in industry there is a strong need to fill certain vacancies.  Despite a high unemployment rate, many of these vacancies remain unfilled because of the lack of qualified labor.   These vacancies will remain unfilled until that qualification is met.   This requirement is often by business necessity and often enforced by government regulation.  

We understand and accept that certain jobs require certain basic skills and qualifications.

We should accept that a citizen of a democracy is on such duty that requires a minimum skill and qualification.  We need these citizens to make decisions.   Decisions require skills that go far beyond reading, writing, and comprehension.  

These skills are not hard.  We once expected people to master them within 12 years of education starting shortly after they mastered the skill to walk to school.


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