August 23 — 12:06 pm, 2010

Thank you for arguing: Q+A with Jay

jay mug

What follows is a  Q & A  with Jay Heinrichs, former magazine editor, and author of the book "Thank You For Arguing." Jay gave a skype talk at a seminar session I attended this summer at Yale University.

Reed: Your book “Thank You For Arguing” served as an anchor text for a Yale National Initiative seminar, "Persuasion in Democratic Politics." When you conceived your book, did you imagine it would be so central for teachers attending an academically rigorous seminar at Yale University?

Heinrichs: I had trouble believing anyone would publish it at all. In our argument-averse culture, doing a book with “argument” in the title sounded about as appetizing to most of my friends as, say,  “Cooking with Insects.” But I wanted to help change people’s attitudes toward argument.

Reed: From the anecdotes in your book, it seems your family has helped you become an expert on rhetoric. What is your response to people who view the word "rhetoric" as having a negative connotation?

Heinrichs: As I mention in the book, my wife and I used to think that happy couples never argue. But every few months I’d do something stupid or thoughtless and Dorothy would come at me with a list of all my atrocities she’d been silently putting up with. As we learned the principles of rhetoric, we discovered the benefits of disagreeing openly. These days we manipulate each other shamelessly, and it’s made for a happy marriage.

Reed: The students that I teach are so wired. Do you think social media and 24 hour media pundits have eroded the art of rhetoric in the public sphere?

Heinrichs: When I was a teen, my girlfriend and I tied up the phones for hours. We didn’t even talk all the time; we sometimes just did homework while staying connected. Isn’t that what Facebook and texting do? I’m not opposed to social media—you’ll find me on Facebook. As for media pundits, that’s a different kettle of fish—rotting fish. These professional jokers and sobbers deteriorate our politics by encouraging tribalism without any regard for the cosmopolitanism behind America’s founding. News should inform us, not prove we’re right.

Reed: You talk a lot about “Aristotle’s Big Three:” ethos, logos, and pathos; can these principles be applied in teaching media literacy?

Heinrichs: Sure. For one thing, students learn that logos, the logical side of argument, isn’t always the most persuasive tool. Aristotle, the man who invented logic as we know it, said that ethos often makes the more powerful weapon. This is your audience’s perception of your character, and it determines whether they like and trust you. If they do, they’re much more likely to follow what you say. At the same time, the principles of logos, ethos, and pathos (argument by emotion) help kids see through the tricks behind -the media- and politicians.

Reed: During your seminar talk you mentioned that President Obama is a great orator, but not an as effective rhetorician. Elaborate on this.

Heinrichs: Actually, Obama is plenty effective rhetorically; at least he was during the campaign. But his speechifying outshines other rhetorical skills, such as defining, labeling, and framing issues. Right after the election, I noted in an essay for “The American Journey of Barack Obama” (Life Books) that the man could suffer from a “virtue” problem—a rhetorical ailment in which his audience doubts he shares their values. I’m sorry to say I’ve been proven right to a degree. But I have hope for the man. He learns fast.

Reed: I developed a curriculum unit that will have students explore the rhetoric of Obama’s “ A More Perfect Union" speech on race. Any suggestions?

Heinrichs: What a great speech. The campaign was crash-diving because of his “loose canon,” the minister Jeremiah Wright. Instead of going on the defensive, Obama brilliantly broadened the issue to enlighten us all about race. One thing that people might miss in the speech is its masterful use of figures, the ancient art of using the perfect words in exceptional order. This speech mirrors the subject in that it’s full of balanced clauses, figures that weigh things side by side.

Reed: You mentioned how rhetoric should be more central in 21st century public education. Could rhetoric fit in with hyper-accountability and standardized testing demands?

Heinrichs: As an educator, you know that better than I. But among the subjects sacrificed for “No Child Left Behind,” I think the biggest loser was citizenship. Training good citizens was the reason public schools were founded in the first place. Rhetoric is the core skill of citizenship; all of America’s founders had some degree of rhetorical training. As the nation takes a second look at “No Child,” we need to find a way to reset our priorities and find standards that don’t choke off democracy’s lifeblood.

Reed: You seem to have a keen interest in education. Talk about the plans for your next book project on rearing rhetorical children?

Heinrichs: Actually the next book, which I’m just finishing, has to do with figures of speech. Called “Word Hero,” it will make people remember you through your words. The book after that will show how to teach kids to argue. I wrote an article, “Argue with Me!”, for Wondertime magazine, that continues to get 20,000 to 75,000 visitors a month. The traffic tells me there’s a demand for educating kids in reasonable persuasion.

Reed: Speaking of rhetorical children, my “soon to be college” son, Kagiso, lost this big argument  with his school and had to make up an AP chemistry class in summer school. Would you be willing to help out with a rhetorical post mortem?

Heinrichs: Love to. The biggest persuasive mistake kids can make is to argue from their own standpoint rather than that of your audience. Your son should have spoke to their beliefs, expectations, and desires—not his own. Since that did not work, I hope he enjoyed chemistry!

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