Persuasion in Education
Persuasion in Education

Persuasion in Education

Persuasion is a sensibility and a capacity that a good education cultivates in students.

March 1 st 2013
Appears in Spring 2013

The concept of “persuasion” has disappeared from mainstream educational theory. However, it has found a receptive audience among educators who are influenced by the classical approaches favoured by Dorothy Sayers’s 1947 essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” In that piece, Sayers commended the medieval Trivium and Quadrivium to her contemporaries as a systematic and rich alternative to modern education, which, she believed, left its recipients undiscerning, unreflective, and intellectually lethargic. The ability to think clearly and speak persuasively is a critical component of “Rhetoric,” the most important part of Sayers’s Trivium, and what she believed should be the end point of formal education for many students in her time. Marjorie Lamp Mead, a modern scholar of twentieth-century Christian thought, described Sayers’s rhetoric this way in an essay called “The Lost Tools of Learning and the Habits of the Scholarly Mind”:

In rhetoric, the student would acquire the ability to debate either verbally or in writing, and just as important, to be skilled in evaluating one’s own work and the work of others, using the facts obtained in logic, and, finally, drawing upon this knowledge and developing the ability to persuade others in argument.

The ability to “persuade others in argument” is what Robert Littlejohn and Charles T. Evans had in mind in Wisdom and Eloquence, in which they devote an entire chapter to the technology of rhetoric and its purposes and praxis.

Taking a cue from the above writers, I want to focus on persuasion as a capacity and, importantly, also as a sensibility that a good education aims to cultivate in the student. I also want to look briefly at the persuasion that inheres in all formal education, whether intentional or not.

Persuasion As A Capacity

At the very minimum, “persuasion” is a habit of clear thinking, writing, and speaking, the achievement of which is sadly not a given in today’s schools. At least in the United States, a hundred years of resistance to a traditional curriculum and a preference for self-expression in the classroom has had its effect, as noted in the work of E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch. Thirty years ago, a major governmental report by The National Commission on Excellence in Education found:

Many 17-year-olds do not possess the “higher order” intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps. . . . The Department of the Navy reports that one-quarter of its recent recruits cannot read at the ninth grade level, the minimum needed simply to understand written safety instructions.

The situation has not improved substantially, despite numerous interventions. Waiting until university to learn these skills doesn’t work, either; a recent analysis (see Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Arum and Roksa) of what kids learn at universities shows a depressing lack of critical reasoning, complex thinking, or writing. Canadian education has met with greater success, particularly in provinces that enforce a strong academic curriculum.

When I taught exceptionally bright, collegebound high-school students, I found that very few of them could frame a coherent moral or political argument without collapsing back upon slogans such as “it’s up to every person to decide for himself” or “we can’t decide what’s right for other countries.” Those sentiments might be true on the face of it (unless one wants to argue against human agency), but they become incredibly troubling when the issue at hand is sex trafficking or childhood genital mutilation. My experience with students at an open university in the South was even worse: at least a third of my students could not formulate coherent, written sentences. For them, a term paper or exam essay that necessitated clear argumentation couldn’t even get off the ground.

The problem was not with my students’ intelligence but, rather, with their prior education, which had not built up the capacity for clarity in any way. As Sayers bemoaned in the 1940s, this void creates potential for all kinds of manipulation, whether consumerist, political, or moral. Sayers worried about the effect of advertising, but in the United States, there is a growing recognition (by William A. Galston, David A. Campbell, and others) that the inability to write clearly and to analyze critically poses a threat to democratic citizenship itself.

It seems clear that teaching the capacity for persuasion, broadly construed, is absolutely vital and needs more champions in more classrooms. Thus it is encouraging to hear about schools and school systems around the world that are turning to more rigorous academic standards. (This list includes more developed nations such as Sweden and the Czech Republic or the school district in Edmonton, Alberta, as well as emerging systems such as those reported in Mckinsey Company’s Education: How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.)

Persuasion As A Sensibility

There are risks associated with teaching the skills of clear thinking, writing, and speaking. The first is the risk of forgetting about truth. This was the accusation that Plato levied against the ancient Sophists, whose purpose (he believed) was to teach their students to win the argument—whether or not what they were arguing for was true. A recent depiction of the structure of persuasion overtaking the search for truth can be seen in the 2006 film The History Boys, in which a trendy instructor helps his students “win” the A-level game by engaging in a cynical format of critique without regard for the truth or beauty of the question at hand.

The remedy here is difficult in a world that has grown wary of truth or that views persuasion in instrumental terms. At least in the classroom, a first step out of this hole is engaging with the art or text or event on its own terms (“what is Emily Dickinson trying to convey here?”) instead of imposing from the outset a modern framework of critique (“how does this poem reflect the alienated female conscience?”). A second step is asking whether what is being discussed coheres with the students’ experiences of the world (“Have you ever felt the pain of ‘a certain slant of light’? What do you think that’s about for you and for Dickinson?”). In some school settings, that is as far as one could go. In religious or philosophical schools, a third step would be to ask students to consider whether the object of discussion is onto something true about the cosmos, the human condition, the problem of pain, or the existence of God, and what solution or answer is offered (if any) and whether it is adequate to the task (or not).

The second risk to teaching persuasion is rationalistic arrogance. This can take many forms. In evangelical Christian circles, it can lend a particular stridency to trying to debate people into religious belief by presenting “proofs” for the historical resurrection of Jesus or by rehearsing traditional arguments against other systems of thought. In political circles, it often forgets that both sides may be arguing for the same end but through different means.

The educational remedy here is for schools to embrace a more realistic view of the human person in three respects. First, schools can remind students that our minds are simply limited and that we do not know everything. Schools can help students become comfortable with this fact by cultivating their habit of listening seriously to other voices (if not their peers’, then those from wildly disparate viewpoints) and even occasionally changing their minds. Teachers can discuss ways in which their own minds have been changed by experience or encounter. In philosophical terms, we can affirm strong ontology and weak epistemology, or assert that although absolute truth might exist, we cannot access it completely.

Second, schools can remind students that we are not merely mind. Instead, a good bit of being persuaded (really persuaded) is coming to grips with the moral force and the emotional content of an argument—not merely its technical logic.

Teachers can even push students to look for compelling aspects of movements they profoundly dislike or the appeal of art they find repugnant.

Third, schools can insist that the dignity of the human person requires the response of respect. This cuts several ways: religious schools seldom dignify secular viewpoints with serious study, and secular schools often disrespect theological viewpoints, whether unwittingly by omission or directly by condescension. The right kind of persuasion in education runs in the opposite direction.

In this sense, “persuasion in education” is not so much a skill but a sensibility toward the world and toward knowledge itself. It reflects a generosity of spirit that can hold strong beliefs but engage with The Other without anxiety, and that is comfortable with commitment and also with change. Of course, the telos of this process is that students become persuaded that knowledge is worth pursuing on its own terms and for uncertain ends—that it is not something merely recalled for an exit exam but sought with delight over the whole of one’s life.

Persuasion Throughout Education

Perhaps the most sobering aspect of persuasion in education is not about the students’ skills or sensibilities, but rather this: because education is inherently moral, it is constantly, if implicitly, persuading about the purpose of education, the nature of our humanity, and the meaning of life itself. As Charles Glenn wrote in The Myth of the Common School (1988), “Formal education . . . presents pictures or maps of reality that reflect, unavoidably, particular choices about what is certain and what in question, what is significant and what unworthy of notice. No aspect of schooling can be truly neutral.”

The school’s atmosphere, its traditions, the curriculum itself, and the methods used to teach this curriculum are all imminently persuasive. High-poverty schools that set high academic standards are persuading children that they can learn and that they have a future. Schools in which teachers and administrators are in and out of one another’s classrooms, critiquing and challenging one another to improve, persuade children that lifelong learning is not only possible but desirable and that excellence is something to be taken seriously. Middle schools that insist on foreign-language fluency are persuading students that the world outside their home is worthy of attention. Religious high schools that encourage back-and-forth in the classroom persuade students that curiosity, disagreement, and debate are important aspects of the moral life. Private schools that let the children of major donors get away with cheating are persuading students that integrity can be sacrificed for financial gain. State schools that neglect to discuss religious questions are persuading students that ultimate questions do not matter. School systems that allow for a variety of beliefs and pedagogies, such as those in the Netherlands or many Canadian provinces, persuade students that deep difference can be honoured in civil society. In short, for good or for ill, every aspect of formal education rests upon some sort of claim about the human person, the good life, the nature of authority, and the purpose of education itself. That is why the claim of “neutrality” in education is so very pernicious.

Schooling is not the only domain in which children are persuaded, of course, and even if it were, human agency allows for a variety of response to even the most determined indoctrination, whether secular or religious. But schooling counts for a lot. As English educator Terence Copley remarked, “Education is the only universal activity in British society, along with shopping and watching television. Education occupies at least 11 full-time years—for many people, with nursery and university, 16 years.”

Given this, it is important that school leaders, policy-makers, and parents ruthlessly examine not only how their instructional practices cultivate students’ capacity for, and sensibilities around, persuasion, but also whether the school itself seems to be persuading children to live as intended. Such an inventory would require the same clarity of mind and humility of spirit that Dorothy Sayers recommended.

Ashley Berner
Ashley Berner

Dr. Ashley Berner is Deputy Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and Assistant Professor of Education. She served previously as the Deputy Director of the CUNY Institute for Education Policy and the Director of the Education Program at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, UVa. Dr. Berner has published articles and book chapters on the relationship between educational structure and state funding in democratic nations, religious education and citizenship formation, and teacher preparation in different national contexts. Palgrave MacMillan published Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School (2017). She consults regularly on projects that examine the academic and civic outcomes of different school sectors. Her teaching experience took place in a Jewish pre-school, an Episcopal secondary school, and an open university in Louisiana. She is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University Law School. She holds degrees from Davidson College (Honors A.B.) and from Oxford University (M.Litt. and D.Phil. in Modern History).


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?