Of all the words that might be applied to Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke — "vile," "misogynistic" and "repulsive" come to mind — one word that has no place in the discussion is "surprise." Limbaugh has made a phenomenally lucrative career of such comments, mocking women, minorities, and many others with gleeful impunity. In doing so, he has inspired a small but disproportionately loud army of imitators on talk radio, cable television, and, increasingly, in the halls of Congress, whose rhetorical tactics of misinformation, demonization, incendiary metaphors, and poisonous historical analogies have done much to debase public discourse.
To say that the current state of public discourse is abysmal seems self-evident. Toxic rhetoric has become a fact of everyday life, a form of entertainment, and a corporate product. Aside from Limbaugh, the contemporary rhetorical scene features pundits such as Glenn Beck, who once mused on-air about killing a public official with a shovel, and talk radio host Neal Boortz, who compared Muslims to "cockroaches." Politicians can be equally offensive. Allen West, the Florida congressman, has compared the Democratic Party to Nazi propagandists, while California congresswoman Maxine Waters has called Republican leaders "demons." Given the forces of money and the power that support such discourse, it would easy to conclude that there is no remedy for toxic rhetoric and no credible opposing forces working to counteract it.
Such a view, however, would be mistaken. In fact, there is a well-organized, systematic, and dedicated effort taking place each day to promote an ethical public discourse grounded in the virtues of honesty, accountability, and generosity. The site of this effort is largely hidden from public view, taking place in the classrooms of universities and colleges across the United States. Even in academe, the movement for an ethical public discourse is largely overlooked. Indeed, it has been historically underfunded, inadequately staffed, and generally marginalized. I refer, of course, to first-year composition, the introductory writing course required at many public and private institutions.
To some, this may seem counterintuitive. First-year composition — also called academic writing, writing and rhetoric, college composition and other names — is not typically associated with improving public discourse, much less considered a "movement." To students required to take the course, it may initially be seen as a speed bump, an exercise in curricular gatekeeping best dispatched as painlessly as possible. To faculty who do not teach the course, it may inaccurately be dismissed as a remedial exercise in grammar and paragraph formation, functioning somewhere below the threshold of higher education proper.
Yet the first-year writing course represents one of the few places in the academic curriculum, in some institutions the only place, where students learn the basics of argument, or how to make a claim, provide evidence, and consider alternative points of view. Argument is the currency of academic discourse, and learning to argue is a necessary skill if students are to succeed in their college careers. Yet the process of constructing arguments also engages students, inevitably and inescapably, in questions of ethics, values, and virtues.
What do students learn, for example, when learning to make a claim? To make a claim in an argument is to propose a relationship between others and ourselves. For the relationship to flourish, a degree of trust must exist among participants, which means that readers must be assured that claims are made without equivocation or deception. To make a successful claim, then, students practice the virtue of honesty.
In the same way, to offer evidence for claims is both to acknowledge the rationality of the audience, which we trust will reason cogently enough to examine our views justly, and a statement of our own integrity, our willingness to support assertions with proofs. In offering evidence, we practice the virtues of respectfulness and accountability.
And when students include counter-arguments in their essays, when they consider seriously opinions, facts, or values that contradict their own, they practice the most radical and potentially transformative behavior of all; they sacrifice the consolations of certainty and expose themselves to the doubts and contradictions that adhere to every worthwhile question. In learning to listen to others, students practice the virtues of tolerance and generosity.
First-year composition, in other words, is more than a course in grammar and rhetoric. Beyond these, it is a course in ethical communication, offering students opportunities to learn and practice the moral and intellectual virtues that Aristotle identified in his Nicomachean Ethics as the foundation for a good life.
What does this mean for the future of public discourse? Potentially a great deal. Consider the numbers. The Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), the professional association of writing programs, counts 152 university and college writing programs in its ranks. Each program may offer anywhere between 10 and 70 writing courses each semester, in classes of 12 to 25 students. Moreover, the CWPA represents just a fraction of the 4,495 institutions of higher education in the United States, serving some 20 million students. This suggests that even by the most conservative estimate thousands of institutions offer some form of first-year writing, and tens of thousands of students each year — likely many more than that — have opportunities to study the relationships of argument, ethics, and public discourse. Indeed, the first-year writing course is the closest thing we have in American public life to a National Academy of Reasoned Rhetoric, a venue in which students can rehearse the virtues of argument so conspicuously lacking in our current political debates.
Should students bring these virtues to the civic square, they will inevitably transform it, distancing us from the corrosive language of figures such as Rush Limbaugh and moving us toward healthier, more productive, and more generous forms of public argument. This, at any rate, is the promise of the long-maligned first-year writing course.
John Duffy is the Francis O'Malley Director of the University Writing Program and an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.