Educating for the Public Sphere

BY Tony Palmeri

A majority of American adults avoid participation in public discussion of issues. Given that so much of what passes for public discourse is infected with the twin poisons of prepackaged partisan talking points and mindless put downs of opposing views, avoidance behavior should not be surprising.

Unfortunately, citizen withdrawal from the public sphere has real consequences. When uncontested bad ideas dominate, policy makers feel empowered to make them into law. The fact that the 400 wealthiest individuals on the Forbes 400 list have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined is a testament to the power of narrow monied interests to get “reverse Robin Hood” economic policy ideas taken seriously.

How can people become more engaged in solving the problems caused by an unhealthy public sphere? Clearly education has to be part of the solution. As a teacher in a Department of Communication at UW Oshkosh that states as its mission helping students to “find their voice,” I am always looking for ways to encourage public engagement. The rest of this rant describes a seminar I taught in the spring of this year designed to provide students with some tools necessary to analyze and evaluate discourse in the public sphere, and hopefully “raise the bar” for such discourse when choosing to enter that sphere themselves.

The seminar was called “Rhetoric in Action.” At the most basic level, rhetoric is the “art of persuasion.” The goal in the course was to expose students to writers in the public sphere for whom persuasion is the major purpose for writing. Newspaper op-ed writers represent probably the best example of the kind of persuaders I had in mind, so I assigned each of the 22 enrolled students a writer that they followed all semester. The assigned writers were Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Frank Bruni, Gail Collins, and Ross Douthat of the New York Times; Leonard Pitts, Jr. of the Miami Herald; Dana Milbank, Eugene Robinson, Kathleen Parker, Katrina vandenHeuvel, Jennifer Rubin, Richard Cohen, E.J.Dionne, Jr., George Will, and Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post; Meghan Daum and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times; Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias of; and John Nichols of the Madison Capital Times.

My main criteria in selecting the writers were: (1) the writer needed to be engaged consistently in writing about major public policy issues, (2) the writer needed to write for a mainstream source, and (3) the writer needed to have a substantial following. Obviously many writers meet those criteria, so I tried to arrive at a balance of liberal, moderate, and conservative voices. My own familiarity with the 22 writers was also a consideration; knowing about the writers in advance made it easier for me to determine if students were representing them accurately in their assigned papers for the course.
The course textbook was The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking, and Writing Critically by professors Karlyn Campbell, Susan Huxman, and Thomas Burkholder. The writers conceptualize a successful rhetorical act as one that employs the resources of evidence, argument, organization, and language to overcome challenges making persuasion difficult. Those challenges arise from audience (they often misinterpret messages and are resistant to change), subject and purpose (subjects can be complex and saying yes to the purpose might cost too much), and the rhetor him or herself (a writer’s prior reputation might get in the way of accepting his or her current argument).

Students wrote many short papers analyzing how their assigned writer tried to overcome specific rhetorical challenges, leading to wonderful classroom discussions about public issues and the manner in which mainstream writers frame them. As the semester went on most seemed to be disturbed by how little the writers address issues of concern to young people; debt, lack of enough good paying jobs, and the environment to name just three examples. I found myself reminding them frequently that the answer was simple: write and speak about the issues you care about. Make a commitment to the public sphere.

The final assignment was a lengthy paper requiring the student to evaluate his or her assigned writer based on artistic quality, effectiveness, accuracy, and/or ethics. These were some of the most intelligent and enjoyable papers I’ve read in a while. A good number of students were drawn to the ethical standard, which looks favorably on rhetoric that promotes social harmony and unfavorably on that which promotes discord. One student told me that a website would be more valuate than politiFact. I told her she should start it.

As a result of this course, one student was motivated to publish his own op-ed (on the topic of student debt) for the student Advance Titan newspaper. Another submitted her final paper (arguing that the NYT’s Frank Bruni weds a sense of comic, tragic, and history like a modern Shakespeare) to the Oshkosh Scholar journal of student scholarship.

Like the majority of liberal arts courses offered at the UW, “Rhetoric in Action” provided students with a meaningful opportunity to think critically about civic responsibility. Such opportunities make it more likely that graduates will pay critical attention to what is going on in Madison and Washington. Perhaps that is why so many politicians want to reduce the UW mission to mere concern with job skills.

Tony Palmeri ( is a professor of communication studies at UW Oshkosh.

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