In James A. Herrick’s text, The History and Theory of Rhetoric, the idea behind rhetoric and its history is introduced. In Ancient Greece, and more specifically Athens, rhetors called Sophists charged young Athenian men for knowledge about rhetoric. Their actions created a lot of disruption in Ancient Greek society, as it upturned the traditional aristocratic education that was set in place. In contrast with this tradition, anyone who could pay the Sophists’ tuition was able to learn techniques in persuasive speech. On page 33, Herrick writes that “education was itself a means of entering a higher social class” (33). This idea of education opening new doors is still current today and can be seen especially in the disparate statistics of the mistakes the criminal justice system makes. In an article about wrongful convictions, a graphic shows that the average time a prisoner who has been wrongfully convicted serves is 13.6 years (Aizman Law Firm). Furthermore this statistic becomes more shocking when a secondary graphic shows how in crimes such as murder, sexual assault and drug possession or sale, black Americans make up at least 50% of this statistic (Good.is).
But what do these statistics tell us about rhetoric? Rhetoric is about engaging with ideas and thus, it is about education. In America’s educational system, education is just sitting in a classroom for a set amount of time to pass a standardized test given to all students across the district, state, or nation. But is this really education? No it is not; it is indoctrination. Furthermore, the quality of education in America largely is due where one lives and receives his education. The American educational system has failed impoverished Americans, especially minorities. Especially with the increased need of higher education and increased cost of tuition, the odds are stacked against these individuals and there is no more “American Dream”. One cannot simply start a business and raise his social standing, he must be born into a privileged family or community, one with the resources that are mandatory for an individual to succeed; therefore, the concept that the Sophists could enable someone to increase their social standings, is no longer a matter of education, it is a matter of luck. And despite this clear problem with the American educational system, current presidential candidates are using rhetoric to sway Americans over tax breaks, instead of focusing on ways to concretely and revolutionarily change our educational system.
So, as Herrick writes about the critics of rhetoric, we must take into consideration if the issues ancient Athenians took with the Sophists and their ideals are still relevant today. Is education, if accessible, enough to change one’s social class, and does a shift in social class dictate a monumental change in society? These are questions our society faces, yet little is done to address them; Therefore, as rhetors ourselves, it is our duty to engage in conversation about these ideas and educate ourselves, so that we may help persuade others to take this important issue seriously.
- @aizmanlawfirm. “Years Lost to Prison – Aizman Law Firm.” Aizman Law Firm. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2016.
- “GOOD.is | Infographic: The Path to Innocence for Wrongly Convicted Americans.” GOOD.is | Infographic: The Path to Innocence for Wrongly Convicted Americans. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2016.
- Herrick, James A. “The Origins and Early History of Rhetoric.” The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction. 05th ed. Boston: Pearson Education, 2013. 28-48. Print.