Bringing the Rhetoric of Assent and the Believing Game Together—and into the Classroom

Peter Elbow
2005 College English  
A response to Wayne Booth's essay in the same issue a "rhetoric of assent." To Wayne Booth's argument for assent, I assent. I will explore our large agreement, our small difference-and then describe some specific classroom practices that can support our common desire to improve rhetoric, thinking, and teaching. Common Ground My assent to Booth is not surprising. I've also written a number of times about the need to explore what it means to say Yes-though in somewhat different terms from
more » ... I wrote my first essay on this topic as an appendix to Writing Without Teachers. I needed to work out a theoretical, epistemological defense against the charge of anti-intellectual when I proposed a no-arguing guideline for "teacherless classes." I proposed what I called "the believing game" as a necessary supplement to "the doubting game" or critical thinking. (I wrote this before Wayne's Modern Dogma-a work I gratefully learned from for my later essay, "Methodological Doubting and Believing.") We agree on five central arguments about assent or belief. (1) We're both trying to avoid the same two dangers: dogmatism and skepticism. People who are stuck in dogmatism are unskilled in doubting. They are trapped in one position and unable to see problems. Sometimes dogmatists are stuck because they are naive--believing what's easiest to believe and believing it too fervently. But of course, some dogmatists are anything but naïve. In contrast, some people doubt everything. They are unable to assent or believe or commit themselves to anything. They become disengaged, detached. This is the characteristic danger for academics, intellectuals--"clerks." Booth and I agree in our analysis of these two root dangers to the intellectual enterprise. (2) We agree on the need for a major expansion of focus for rhetoric: not just "How can I change their minds," but also, "Does my mind need changing?" Any study of good thinking or effective argument is flawed if it fails to focus on the problem of how we change our own minds. (3) We both emphasize the role of assent or belief in any model of good thinking, rhetoric, or communicating. We question the pervasive assumption that good thinking centers only on argument as a process of skeptical scrutinizing for flaws and contradictions. We notice that people often feel they are using a flabby kind of thinking if they come to agree with a view that's very different from their own instead of quarreling with it-that they must be failing in their duty to "critical thinking." Wayne and I express our common debt to Polanyi for his powerful account of the necessary role of trust in all good thinking--what he calls the "fiduciary transaction." Thinking and discourse are flawed when someone tries to criticize something without first managing to "dwell with" and indeed "dwell in" it. Wayne writes: "Just as I must earn my right to criticize a poem by dwelling with it until I can find my dwelling in it, I [must
doi:10.2307/30044680 fatcat:xwmqkime5zgbhaizksipqbbxvy