As impeachment proceedings advance, as conflict in the Middle East escalates, as candidates for president bombard us with television messages, and as Facebook decides that it will not even bother trying to eliminate lies and misinformation posted by bots and trolls, I keep repeating the lines of W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” Like many others, I have whole swaths of poetry inscribed in my memory: I surprised myself recently by reciting a Shakespeare sonnet I hadn’t thought of in years. But Yeats’s poem is one of those indelibly etched in my memory to which I turn with increasing frequency: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
Yeats was writing amid the horrors of the “Great War” in 1919, but his words haunt our current scene. Today it seems that the worst among us are the ones whose “passionate intensity” is being heard. Many students tell me they are so distressed and confused by the torrent of what Howard Rheingold calls the “tsunami of hogwash” inundating us that they have tuned out: no news is preferable to passionately intense hogwash, they say, and with some justification. But giving in to that urge, which I often share, means giving up on what I have taught and believed in for 50 years: rhetoric as ethical communication. I don’t think we can give up; I think we must not give up. Never has it been more important for us to embrace and practice ethical communication, to model it, to analyze and explain it, and to engage with our students in it. Teachers of writing everywhere have an urgent obligation to help students understand the pervasive forces appealing to our worst instincts and to our worst versions of ourselves—to understand these forces and to build tools capable of revealing these negative and destructive forces for what they are. And to provide students with the rhetorical knowledge and strategies that can lead not to a “lack of conviction” but to its opposite, to what is true and honest and honorable and good.
As it turns out, the humble first-year writing course is the very place where such instruction can and does take place. As John Duffy puts it, “First-year composition is more than an introductory writing class. It is a course in ethical communication, one that offers students and the rest of us a hopeful alternative to our debased public discourse.” Duffy’s words—and the work of first-year writing courses and those who teach them—give me hope, and courage. As we move into this momentous election year, when so much is at stake for democracy and democratic institutions, we need to hold fast to these ideals.
Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 534751 by Fotocitizen, used under the Pixabay License