|Pedagogy Shaped by Ideology: Beneath or Beyond Plato Page 1 of 4|
|Written by Kacey Ross|
Because it is nearly impossible to underestimate the impact of Platonic thought on Western culture, identifying Plato’s influence on writing and writing instruction should be easy. However, even though Platonic undertones saturate educational systems, precisely describing the ways that Plato has affected the teaching of writing is difficult. Part of this difficulty can be explained through mutability; the understanding of Plato’s influence has changed as composition studies have evolved. The influence has been received as positive, negative, and immaterial at different points in the history of rhetoric and composition studies. Plato’s presence in schools writ large has resulted in a kind of public indoctrination, affecting, ultimately, those who teach writing, as well as, more generally, popular ways of thinking and/or habits of mind. These people rely on and replicate Plato’s understanding of the world. Teachers who have been influenced, albeit unknowingly, by Plato have an ideology, which shapes a pedagogy, that is laden with Platonic undertones and is likely to ask the same of students’ writing.
It seems ironic that despite Plato’s attacks on writing in both Phaedrus and Gorgias, his presence still permeates the way writing is taught. Strikingly few scholars ascribe to McAdon’s perception that “Plato’s view of rhetoric in the Phaedrus is consistent with the view expressed in the Gorgias—he denounces it completely” (22). Plato is not interested in supporting writing or writers; in fact, his absolute transcendent truth, his understanding of morality, and his prevalent binaries—some of the most basic pillars of Platonic thought—create significant problems for writing. In order to dethrone Plato, an understanding of his epistemology is imperative; on the most basic level, Plato’s reach for singular unchanging truth shapes his ideology. Because pedagogy is always shaped by ideology, composition teachers need to be keenly aware of the ramifications of ascribing to a Platonic framework, ideology, and pedagogy. Teaching writing without a Platonic undercurrent is possible; it may hold significant benefits for the composition classroom, but it will require an active choice from teachers and writers to think and write in a different way.
Perhaps the most controlling, basic idea upon which Plato’s philosophy rests is a “belief in the eternal, unchanging, absolutes” (Grube 1). Plato’s truth is constant and transcendent. Socrates, Plato’s mouthpiece according to many scholars, asserts this ideology by awarding the title “Wise Man” to those who “know…wherein the real truth lies; and [are] able to defend [it]…and…can…expose the trivialities of written things” (Phaedrus 70). The implication of agreeing with Plato on this foundational level is the fixedness of truth and knowledge. According to G.M.A. Grube, a prominent Platonic scholar, “Plato insisted upon the possibility of knowledge and upon the existence of absolute values. To do this he had to establish the existence of an objective universally valid reality” (3). The permanence and transcendent nature of truth that Plato espoused saturates his philosophy, and it provides a fixed goal toward which to strive.
Ascribing to Plato’s belief in eternal, unchanging, absolute truth has an impact on the teaching of writing; Plato’s ideology of reaching for truth can be transcribed to understand that the purpose of writing is to search out that Platonic truth in order to gain knowledge. Kastely suggests “there is a progression within the dialogue that leads ultimately to an articulation of Plato’s attitude toward writing” (140). Plato only sees writing as a mediocre tool within the dialectical movement toward truth, and if the purpose of writing is to move an individual closer to Plato’s unchanging truths, the function of writing becomes very limited.
The process pedagogy movement, prominent in the 1970s and '80s, made visible significant tensions between Platonic truth and the writing process. Process pedagogy revolves around the idea that “instead of a two-step transaction of meaning-into- language,” writing is “an organic, developmental process in which you start at the very beginning—before you know your meaning at all—and encourage your words gradually to change and evolve…. What looks inefficient—a rambling process with lots of writing and lots of throwing away—is really efficient since it’s the best way you can work up to what you really want to say and how to say it” (Elbow13-14). The result of an organic, growing, and changing understanding of writing is an organic, growing, and changing truth that is intertwined with the writer. As the writing evolves, so does the writer, and so does the writer’s individual truth. Even though composition studies have evolved since process pedagogy emerged, its remnants are still visible in drafting, peer revision, and other commonplaces in the writing classroom. The multiple truths, which stand in opposition to Platonic binaries and are a cornerstone of process theory, did not fade, but they ceased to be intentionally personal truths.
When process pedagogy began to lose ground to social epistemic rhetoric, the undeniable tensions between rhetoric and writing studies and Platonism became even more evident. Social epistemic rhetoric, which has at its very foundation the belief that meaning or truth, is created as writing happens, (between the reader, writer, text, and context) cannot actually coexist with a Platonic framework that endorses an ultimate, unchanging truth. Faigley explains this contradiction saying rhetoric and writing studies have settled on a model that “decisively reject[s] the primacy of consciousness and instead has consciousness originating in language, thus arguing that the subject is an effect rather than a cause of discourse” (9). Asserting that the subject of rhetoric is an effect rather than a cause of discourse stands in direct contradiction to Platonism. Plato believes writing is a weak reflection of truth, and can only attempt to represent a “subject.” Not only does social epistemic rhetoric reject a stoic truth, it claims that discourse happens as an effect—that is it does not exist to relate ideas, but to generate ideas.
Since the time that rhetoric and writing studies moved beyond current traditional rhetoric, the theory of the discipline has been complicating the often unchallenged Platonic framework that undergirds Western society and educational practices. Regardless of what theoretical school composition teachers subscribe to, Plato’s fixed notions of truth are problematic for writing instruction because they assume that all writers ascribe to one definition of truth and share the singular goal of moving toward it. In a Platonic framework, this truth goal is Plato’s truth, not the situated, kairotic, necessary truth of a writer rhetor who is working in the real world and for a distinct purpose. Moving away from Platonic rhetoric creates space for “a rhetoric that compels us to tell what must be told, to retell what needs to be retold, to search for the words that will make our day and the days of others” (Poulakos 175). An understanding of writing which encourages writers to write anything that needs to be told within a situation, instead of only writing in the pursuit of fixed transcendent truth has the possibility to open writing for writers—to make writing responsive to individual, communal, civic, societal, and cultural situations. Beyond not being kairotic or situated, the absolute truths that are inherent in Plato’s philosophy are discouraging because writers cannot know what they know, they cannot be certain or even knowledgeable about anything because Plato’s truth is transcendent. Further, under Plato’s model, writers most certainly cannot know anything through writing because it only offers a weak representation of reality.