THE IDEA OF A UNIVERSITY AS SEEN BY A RHETORICIAN
Hanna H. Gray
There are a number of truly significant occasions in the University. Convocations are one such occasion, the matriculation of students another, the Laing Prize, awarded last week, still another. And there is the Ryerson Lecture, which is, in many ways, the central event of our university and in the rhythm of the academic year. It is an occasion that celebrates, above all, the quality, the distinction, the contribution, and collegiality of our faculty. The lecturer is chosen by a faculty committee. Nominations are received from the faculty. Each lecturer has had something important to say from the perspective of his or her vision, of the life of scholarship, the life of learning, the life of teaching. It is an occasion that allows us to celebrate the aspirations we hold for ourselves as a university community.
This occasion allows us to think also of the extent of the University community, which is so important in our lives and in all that we are able to be and able to accomplish. This afternoon I would like to say a word about a member of that extended university community, Nancy Ranney, who died at the end of the past month. I should like to say how grateful we are for her friendship and support, for her contribution to this lectureship; how grateful we are for her devotion to the University, for the values we share as an extended university community. We are deeply grateful also for her commitment and her service in so many ways to our University, to the Chicago Lying-in Hospital, to the Women's Board of the University, and also in the many different and individual ways in which she brought to us her gifts of great warmth, enormous intelligence, and an enthusiasm always infused by a sense of quality, of very high standards and a warm engagement with each of us as members of this community as well as a commitment to what the University hopes that it is and strives always to be.
Eugene Ionesco once said, when asked why he was an author, "Why do people always expect authors to answer questions? I'm an author because I want to ask questions. If I had answers, I'd be a politician." I think today's lecturer might say words of that kind, when asked why he is a writer and why he is a teacher, why he is, above all, the quintessential academic man. If he had answers, he'd be a politician. Of course he is a kind of politician. He is the ultimate anti-politician.
Last year, the American Association for Higher Education conducted a nationwide search for six faculty members who had made a difference. It was a pleasure to nominate Wayne Booth for that recognition, and he was one of the six faculty members from across the nation honored in that way.
Our letter of nomination included some words of Stuart Tave I'd like to share with you. He said, "Wayne Booth is unusual in the way in which he has served the cause of education at so many levels in varied capacities. He taught for years at a small serious college, then became a major figure and distinguished service professor at a large university." I don't know why Stuart didn't say "serious large university," but I suppose we can talk about that later. "He was Dean of the College at Chicago in the late 1960s during a difficult time, and did extraordinarily well, so that he was admired by students and faculty, even those who disagreed with what he was doing. One of the reasons was that, in his characteristic way, he converted every meeting or confrontation into an occasion of serious moral and intellectual discourse, an educational moment. He has carried the same mode to the national stage as President of the Modern Language Association, for example, where his addresses and papers made the members proud to be members of a profession with such a spokesman." And finally our letter said, "We all know that caring is not enough, that nobility of soul is no substitute for incisive and original intelligence, learning and practical ingenuity. But when these are present, along with energy and persistent enthusiasm, the ability to endow by your engagement with students and colleagues, intellectual and educational enterprises with a shared sense of worthy commitment, that is a priceless and rare contribution. It is the special way of Wayne Booth." It is also the special way, I assume, of an anti-politician.
But what do I mean when I say an anti-politician? Rhetoricians, after all, are thought to be highly political sorts. The notion of rhetoric as an art of politics has a long history as does the notion of rhetoric as the ethical persuasion of people toward worthy causes, worthy ends, and as does the notion of rhetoric, in a debased popular sense, which sees rhetoric as a means of deceptive manipulation. Today we are to hear from a rhetorician who belongs in the grand tradition of those who have seen the liberal arts, a liberal education as embedded above all in a tradition and activity of shared human communication, who have seen rhetoric as a way of thinking and of knowing and of understanding (Wayne might even say occasionally of "overstanding"), not as a set of ornaments or embellishments of style, but as the integration of communication and substance toward ends which are held worthy.
Wayne, as you know, was Dean of the College and also served in a variety of other administrative roles at the University. But he is a counselor, too, an advisor to the University in every sense. He is a man who thinks about teaching as well as being a superb teacher. And his contributions to curricular thought, his contributions to thinking about pedagogy, his insistence that one think about the purposes of each kind of teaching are very well known. He has always been a teacher of students in introductory courses as well as advanced students, in the Humanities Core, in Ideas & Methods, in the PERL (Politics, Economics, Rhetoric, and Law) program, as well as in his graduate teaching. And of course, he is a man known for his scholarship, and in particular for such works as The Rhetoric of Fiction, which won the Christian Gauss award, and also the David Russell award; Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism, a book that won the Laing Prize not long ago; A Rhetoric of Irony, Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent; and a collection of essays called Now Don't Try to Reason with Me: Essays and Ironies for a Credulous Age.
This is the man who has also clocked the number of references to irony which he finds in the papers of colleagues presenting papers at the Modern Language Association. His most recent analysis of this, if I'm really up-to-date, is that irony is mentioned an average of one-and-three-quarters times in every paper delivered at the Modern Language Association.
He has also been recognized not only with numerous awards, but also with every major fellowship from Guggenheim to Rockefeller to Ford to the National Endowment for the Humanities. As President of the Modern Language Association, Wayne Booth rose and said to his professional colleagues that it was a scandal how introductory courses were taught in the colleges and universities and that it was a scandal how little genuine communication the increasingly specialized forms of modern literary criticism sometimes permitted in an academic world where teaching and scholarship belong together, in which the purpose of both and the serious concentration on both are one and the same thing. He talked about the ultimate need for, the overriding goal of, critical understanding--one of his favorite and important phrases. He said in his presidential address that whatever it is that he's doing, whether working on his book, teaching graduate students, or teaching an introductory course, he should be trying at every point "to increase the chances, always painfully low, that critical understanding will replace, on the one hand, sentimental and uncritical identifications that leave minds undisturbed, and on the other, the hypercritical negations that freeze or alienate."
Another theme that accompanies those of the integration of teaching and scholarship and of the search for critical understanding, is that of integrity. Because in the end this sense of what the purpose of a scholarly and pedagogic life is all about has to do with the intensification of and with the conscious reflection on what integrity may mean, both as an attribute of character and as an attribute of mind, a search, in short, for that harmony of mind and character which above all fuses intellectual and personal integrity. Hence in his thinking about education, in his writing, in his exhortations to us, Wayne is above all insistent on reasonableness, on fairmindedness, on looking at different points of view, and on understanding them.
At the same time, Wayne is a man, who, tolerant as he is, believes also that some answers are presumably wrong. When in his book Critical Understanding he urged the acceptance of a pluralistic approach to criticism, he urged that critics not kill one another. It seemed like a very revolutionary idea at the time. And then he raised the question: Must critics kill? And he said, yes, sometimes. But then he said, only when justice requires killing.
Now I propose a question to you, Wayne, if I may apostrophize you once again. I have recently read about a new form of criticism, new at any rate to me. I refer to the new academic field which apparently has to do with criticism of television. From this, for example, we get the following description of I Love Lucy: "A ritualized conflict between the desire of women to leave the home and the desire of men to keep them there. Each episode returns Lucy to the private realm." The Mary Tyler Moore Show: "Mary has succeeded where Lucy failed. She joins the public world. Note how the newsroom family embodies the ideal union of work and love spoken of by Freud." Hill Street Blues: "The men's room is a zone of temporary equality among officers. Captain Furillio's office is the space in which hierarchy is reestablished." Accompanying this was a very useful short manual to what was called "discoursing the new telejive." It says, "Never ever refer to a show or a program. The term is 'text.' Needless to say, texts are not watched or viewed, they are read. They should always be read as something, as in 'I read David Letterman as metatelevision, don't you?' When one show rips off another, that's called 'intertextuality,' which is highly prized. Anyone who says to the audience, 'hey, don't forget, this is a television show' is being self-reflexive. And that's all to the good. Don't call anything sexist. Nowadays it's 'gendered.' Don't refer to types of shows when there are genres to talk about. Or, talk is not talk, it is discourse. And if the discourse gets confusing, refer to the multiplicity of meanings it offers. When you like something you argue for it, as in, for example 'I would argue for Mr. T as a kind of excessively gendered negation of state authority.' When someone else likes something, you can accuse them of 'privileging' it. To wit, 'I think you're "privileging" the Dynasty discourse as somehow more expressive than the texts that activate it.' When in doubt"--and here we come back to you, Wayne--"you can call anything ironic and get away with it." There I think I recognize words of your own.
In any case, we will soon learn about whether this form of criticism belongs to the kill or not-kill, the understanding or overstanding strata of discourse. In the meantime, we have as our lecturer a man whose insistence is on honest inquiry, as he has written, and honest rhetoric. Sir Francis Bacon said "the duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for better moving of the will." I prefer today the phrase that comes from Cato and became Quintilian's definition of the genuine orator, "vir bonus dicendi peritus," Wayne Booth.