Sunday, November 27, 2005

Teacher Watch: Kenneth Burke, Man of Letters

He died in 1993, but 21st century teachers would do well to appreciate the educational path taken by Kenneth Burke and introduce him to their students. Burke's career (and his legacy of thinking) challenges dominant attitudes about "measuring" learning through tests and certificates. Arguably, his contributions are more relevant now than ever.

Burke famously dropped out of Columbia University in order to read, write and study on his own, penning heavy book-length works and hundreds of articles about language, philosphy, and literature. I once met a Columbia grad student at a conference in Leeds, UK, who confessed that Burke's legacy is an intimidation to even his most ambitious classmates, who are mortified to discover what he accomplished without credentials from the Ivy League. Some of Burke's significant texts include Counter-Statement (1931), Grammar of Motives (1945), Rhetoric of Motives (1950), and The Rhetoric of Religion (1961). He was friend or correspondent to many modernist writers and artists, including Jean Toomer, Marriane Moore, and William Carlos Williams. He worked for a time at The Dial (as a music critic!) and also contributed to The Nation. Despite his lack of a PhD, he was also a teacher in the ancient peripatetic tradition (i.e. he gave talks everywhere).

Burke examined language to interpret human motives and to advance complex dialogue--as an antidote to winner/loser debates and physical violence. His work is not easy to catalogue or typify, and Burke defended himself against being slotted into simplistic compartments of understanding. But his "place" is still debated by scholars in diverse disciplines, including literary theory, speech communication, composition, rhetoric, history, and theology.

What does this have to do with us now? Our perpetual bombardment of testing and failure in schools is counterpart, in domestic politics, to the state of perpetual war foreseen by Orwell--a state which haunted Burke and other writers who lived through the bloody beginnings of the past century. Burke's writings provide tools through which we can analyze and discuss motivations inside forces now assumed to be "objective," including multiple choice tests, automated essay scoring, textbook summaries, classroom performance systems, diplomas, and even teacher training.

For too long, schools have valued scrutiny over attentiveness. Extending the Burkean tradition, perhaps teachers and students can stand together for curiosity, life-work, and a commitment to posing questions that open rather than reduce conversation. In our own individual ways, we can do the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable work of breaking molds that confine us--because, as Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, we too "contain multitudes."

Check out KB Journal for informational links, articles, new books and scholarship.

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