Globalized World, Globalized Composition: In Praise of Comparative Cross-Cultural Rhetoric

Globalized World, Globalized Composition:

In Praise of Comparative Cross-Cultural Rhetoric

Maren Nield

In today’s academic world, we teach students classical composition strategies. First-year writing instructors teach these tried and true pedagogies relying heavily on Greek rhetorical practices, namely on the teachings of Aristotle along with Isocrates, the Sophists, Plato, Gorgias, Cicero, and Quintilian. As Gray-Rosendale and Gruber note in Alternative Rhetorics, “To receive a valid and valuable education in rhetoric and composition for many means to know the traditional canon and to be able to apply this knowledge to scholarship in the field” (Gray-Rosendale and Gruber, 1). This strategy has heretofore proved productive and effective; however, it does seem a bit ethnocentric in a globalized world to rely solely on classical Greek and Latin roots to teach a subject practiced universally in myriad ways.

Gray-Rosendale and Gruber continue, stating, “Although traditional texts are an important part in every rhetoric and composition scholar’s repertoire, we know that the modern rhetorical canon is constantly expanding and unfolding far beyond the traditional texts with which we have become familiar” (Gray-Rosendale and Gruber, 1). Reaching a tentacle into the realm of other traditions may not significantly improve the writing ability of a composition student, but it is paramount in creating an inclusive, comparative, globally aware classroom in accordance with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) definition of 21st Century literacies.[1] Further, Gray-Rosendale and Gruber note that “If we look at the beginning of the new century as a particular moment in the history of rhetoric, we can see that the composition of scholars in the field is changing, representing a wider array of cultural, political, ideological economic, and social backgrounds.” This change, as Gray-Rosendale and Gruber conclude, “makes possible and promotes scholarship in rhetoric and composition…moving away from being traditional to being open and accepting of different and alternative presentations and representations of the study of rhetoric” (Gray-Rosendale and Gruber, 1). We need to implement comparative rhetoric into required general education classes, as every student will then be exposed to this broader lens. This alternative or comparative rhetorical tradition has been explored in the works of Laura Gray-Rosendale and Sybille Gruber, LuMing Mao, Huiling Ding, Linda Flower, and J. Vernon Jensen’s, et al.; however, publications on the pedagogical implications and applications only regard advanced level composition. I suggest we implement an alternative form of rhetoric, by way of comparative rhetoric, including composition traditions outside the classical roots, into first-year writing classrooms.

Comparative rhetoric, according to George Kennedy, is “the cross-cultural study of rhetorical traditions as they exist or have existed in different societies around the world” (Kennedy). Further, it “aims to reach and cultivate what may be called a ‘creative understanding’ with another rhetorical tradition and with ‘its new aspects and new semantic depths’” (Bakhtin, 7). This comparative rhetoric is a relatively new area of study in the field of rhetoric, although it has played quite close in hand with the growth of the composition field since the Dartmouth conference in the 1960s. Robert T. Oliver’s Communication and Culture in Ancient India and China in 1971 is the seminal work on comparative rhetoric. He urged us to “study Asian rhetorics in order to broaden our horizon of rhetoric study, which had been dominated by the Western or Aristotelian tradition” (Mao). Oliver’s ultimate objective is “not to find the rhetoric of the East but to find ways of identifying and depicting it in a fashion that will make it meaningful to Western minds without thereby denying its essentially holistic character.” Despite failing to escape the almost dogmatic binary between East and West, Oliver’s work served to open the eyes of his audience to the world of comparative rhetoric. While Oliver attempted to negate the necessity for a distinction between Eastern and Western, he still used the terms to separate the different rhetorical traditions. As a result, the primary terms used to discuss Eastern and Western rhetoric maintain an irreparable binary. I use these terms throughout my paper to demonstrate the distinction between the Eastern and Western traditions, though my purpose is to recognize that although the traditions stem from different location and cultures, they are still a part of an overarching holistic rhetorical tradition including both the Eastern and Western traditions.

Given the wide-ranging nature of Eastern rhetoric, I am not attempting to offer an inclusive, comprehensive study of the tradition. Rather, I propose a first-year composition course where students are instructed regarding Eastern rhetorical tradition alongside the Western (classical) Tradition. A number of scholars, including J. Vernon Jensen (see above), have suggested more advanced courses on Eastern rhetoric; however, I suggest implementing Eastern rhetoric wherein the tradition itself is not “othered” in comparison to European traditions. Debates regarding rhetorical tradition have been a part of rhetoric and composition pedagogies for some time. The most common definitions of rhetoric, those typically taught in composition courses, stem from the Greek, Latin, and European roots, including those definitions related by Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Locke, Michele Foucault, Kenneth Burke, Lloyd Bitzer, and Richard E. Vatz, et. al., all of whom grew out of the classical tradition (Gray-Rosendale, 1).

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—the three philosophers perhaps most central to the classical tradition—influenced the Greeks over the course of only 100 years yet hold great sway over the current rhetorical tradition. Like Jensen, I posit that when we introduce the Aristotelian definition of rhetoric we should also present the Eastern position on the same idea. As Jensen states, “Our profession since its origin has dutifully analyzed the rhetoric of Greece, Rome, Britain, and the United States, but has ignored over half of the globe” (Jensen, 134). Jensen observes the growing venture into Asian rhetoric studies, noting that several classes have been introduced in the upper level humanities and foreign affairs, but is concerned that the progress is too slow: “despite these promising but small signs, we need to impress upon ourselves the great urgency of focusing much more thoroughly on Asian rhetoric” (Jensen, 136). With the close American trade with China, the 60% of the world population who speak Chinese, and the ever-increasing number of students on American campuses of Asian descent, it simply makes sense to implement a stronger focus on comparative Eastern rhetoric.

Given the widespread influence of Confucianism on the Eastern tradition, I have chosen to concentrate much of this paper on how a first-year composition curriculum might include the Analects and their application. This is not to disregard alternative Eastern rhetorical traditions aside from Confucianism, such as Daoism, Mohism, Legalism, and the School of Ming, but rather to illustrate the applicability of Eastern rhetorical traditions in the first-year composition classroom. Similar to the Greek, and thereafter Latin and European tradition, Confucianism holds as much sway over the intellectual Eastern scholar as the Greeks hold over the Western classical tradition. A majority of the Eastern rhetorical tradition is based on the Analects of Confucius (551-479 BCE), created even prior to the teachings of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. Like Aristotle who claimed rhetoric was necessary for a society and its leaders, Confucian philosophy and teachings are based on the need for and the expectation of jen—humanity, benevolence, or perfect virtue. This included the ritualistic practice of ren, or the proper treatment of one’s parents, other family members, and government officials. A person’s li is the requirement to perform good deeds for one’s fellow man. This altruism was necessary in the process of becoming a junzi, or a gentleman sage and ideal man (Mao, 403-404).

Confucius taught that in order for a peaceful society to exist all must also follow the doctrine of Rectification of Names, whereby one is expected to live up to the title given him by society. Confucius applied this to how citizens would act when subject to either a benevolent or belligerent ruler. If the ruler is benevolent, Confucius taught, those under him would be as well. However, when a ruler is belligerent, then the people likewise would be (de Bary, 18-33). Confucius believed that only a truly wise and virtuous ruler could fittingly head the hierarchy of society and lead all men, by the example and suasion of his own goodness, to perfect order and a practice of similar virtue. This is explained quite clearly in the various Confucian sayings: “A gentleman makes demands of himself; an inferior man makes demands of others”; “To rule is to set things straight. If you lead by setting yourself straight, who would dare to not set themselves straight?”; and “The gentleman first practices what he preaches and then preaches what he practices” (de Bary, 18, 23). For Confucius, a leader who is adept at rhetoric was necessary for the proper governance of a community or society.  The teachings of Confucius, while not immensely popular during his life, became the central tenet of unified China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) with the implementation of the Civil Service Examination (Keju). According to Eastern scholar Keju, the Civil Service Examination was a “method of recruiting civil officials based on merit rather than family or political connections.” This played an especially central role in Chinese social and intellectual life from 650 to 1905.  “Passing the rigorous exams,” says Keju, “which were based on classical literature and philosophy, conferred a highly sought-after status, and a rich literati culture in imperial China” (Keju).  In essence, the Civil Service Examination was a test by which all men entering into positions of leadership must evidence, essentially, their rhetorical (public speaking and cultural awareness) ability.

The Confucian Analects and the Civil Service Examination could quite easily be implemented into a first-year writing course. Comparative Rhetoric seems a straightforward way to “globalize” the classroom. When I introduce rhetoric in my classroom, I prefer to present the historical context of the Grecian tradition. This can be difficult given the semester length of the class, but if I can cover Grecian rhetorical tradition over the course of the semester, I could just as easily implement a tandem integration of the Eastern rhetorical tradition into my classroom. In this fashion, Comparative Rhetoric, “the cross-cultural study of rhetorical traditions as they exist or have existed in different societies around the world,” could easily be integrated into the classroom. As I stated earlier, I could create lessons that intentionally cross cultures (e.g. when I use Queen Elizabeth I’s Speech to the Troops at Tilbury to teach about Rhetorical Analysis, I could also have my students analyze Emperor Qian Long’s Letter to King George III).

When we, as instructors, give the Aristotelian definition of rhetoric, namely “the available means of persuasion,” from Aristotle’s On Rhetoric and elucidate upon the Grecian argumentative tradition in pursuit of truth, we could easily also introduce the Confucian tradition on the virtue of man. In fact, the Greek arete—a virtuous man—is remarkably similar to the Confucian junzi, or gentleman sage (Peck, Ding). The rhetoric which creates both of these well-read men is so similar that we should grasp this opportunity to globalize our classrooms by teaching both the arete and the junzi. In doing so we would recognize that the rhetorical tradition is not merely a Western advent. We live in a globalized world run by technology and instantaneous global communication. We need to teach our students, in a general education class, that more of the world exists than just the Greeks and their influence on Western culture.

We could further expand on this idea of a “virtuous man” or junzi throughout history. We could, for example, compare two distinct lists identifying what makes a good man from the Enlightenment Era. Benjamin Franklin, a classically (Western) educated polymath, famously published his schedule and list of thirteen virtues in his autobiography. Franklin claimed that following this strict schedule and working to improve these virtues would develop his character (Franklin). Franklin’s virtues—temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility—ring surprisingly similar to the Kangxi Emperor’s (r. 1662-1722) “Sacred Edict” from the Qing Dynasty. The “Sacred Edict” was a set of moral and government instructions “promulgated by imperial authority for use in local rituals.” Revised to sixteen maxims by the Yongzheng emperor (r. 1723-1735), the “Sacred Edict” maintains its Confucian roots in stating such maxims as “Esteem most highly filial piety and brotherly submission, in order to give due importance to human moral relations,” “Behave with generosity toward your neighborhoods, in order to illustrate harmony and benignity,” and “Cultivate peace and concord in your neighborhoods, in order to prevent quarrels and litigations” (deBary).  Many other “Sacred Edict” tenets also resemble the virtues esteemed by the famous American founding father on the other side of the world at nearly the same time.

Applying these ideals into a classroom could be, as I stated earlier, quite simple. Following the same comparison between Eastern and Western, I could create lessons that intentionally cross cultures (once again, for example, Queen Elizabeth I’s Speech to the Troops at Tilbury alongside Emperor Qian Long’s Letter to King George III, Benjamin Franklin’s “Thirteen Virtues” alongside the Kangxi Emperor’s “Sacred Edict”, and Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham alongside Mahatma Gandhi’s “Defense of Nonviolent Resistance”). Incorporating these Eastern and Western ideas of virtue into a writing assignment at the freshman level would be useful for multiple reasons: to introduce comparative rhetoric as integral for a thorough understanding of ancient and modern history and language; to stimulate discussions and analysis of virtue and civility in general; and to offer a more global lens through which to view the world, both Western and Eastern. As is the case at many reputable universities, the student body is globally diverse (drawing students from all over the world) and where we all now live in a globalized world anyway, such an approach could also promote better cross-cultural understanding. Incorporating this approach into a first-year writing course would be easy, as already discussed. To further illustrate, students could utilize the comparison and presentation of the Eastern and Western rhetorical traditions when writing their opinion editorials regarding a particular moral or political issue (the first major writing assignment I currently assign in my freshman writing class). Students could then analyze speeches from differing cultures for their rhetorical analysis assignment (the second major writing assignment). For their final major writing assignment, students could implement personal research and rhetorical principles into their conference papers.

Expecting our students to participate in and leave our classrooms with an open mind, to understand discourse communities, and to feel confident in their own voice are only a few of the benefits of introducing comparative rhetoric in the classroom. Joseph Harris cites Bizzell’s 1992 definition of community in stating, “healthy discourse communities, like healthy human beings, are…masses of contradiction…. We should accustom ourselves to dealing with contradictions, instead of seeking a theory that appears to abrogate them” (Bizzell, 325, in Harris, 143). As Bizzell notes, healthy discourse communities will inherently contradict each other. While the Eastern and Western traditions maintain a number of significant similarities, as discussed throughout this paper, bringing together two heretofore disparate traditions will almost inevitably end up contradicting each other at one point or another. The comparative rhetorical tradition allows students to see the globalized, intercultural history of the world in general. Comparative rhetoric helps students to recognize their own bias and to contradict each other with greater empathy, both important facets of open-mindedness.

Second, as Linda Flowers suggests in her “Talking Across Difference: Intercultural Rhetoric and the Search for Situated Knowledge,” working through intercultural assignments, with this open-minded classroom community, teaches students how to “talk across difference…to build a collaboratively transformed understanding” (Flower 38). In other words, integrating comparative rhetoric into a first-year writing course allows students the opportunity to enhance both their writing ability and their understanding of the world. Students are more likely to situate themselves within a particular community when they have an understanding of how that community works. When they gain this understanding, they are more likely to interact, contradict, participate, and inquire within their own communities. This understanding further informs student awareness, potentially bolstering both their passion for written discussion and their ability to enter a written discourse community. As Flowers suggests, “An intercultural rhetoric basic on inquiry is, then, a deliberate meaning-making activity in which difference is not read as a problem but sought out as a resource for constructing more grounded and actionable understandings” (Flowers, 40).

Third, implementing a wholly comparative rhetorical tradition, looking at documents and examples from different cultures, and allowing students to enter or understand particular discourse communities, will also allow a “special voice”, as Flowers puts it, to emerge. When Eastern rhetoric is included in the classroom, students who previously felt underrepresented in traditional rhetoric can feel that they are better able to enter discourse communities in the classroom and in the real world. Implementing Eastern rhetoric into the classroom community helps students realize the variety of voices influencing world history and they begin to understand how their unique voice plays a part in their discourse communities.

Of course, implementing comparative rhetoric into a first-year writing classroom holds its own host of problems. Teachers trained in the Western rhetorical tradition may feel they are unqualified to teach a rhetorical tradition with which they are unfamiliar. Learning a new rhetorical tradition can be stressful, time consuming, and complicated, but changing our mindsets is necessary to keep up with the technologically globalized world. Furthermore, if we expect our students to be willing to participate in and leave our classrooms with an open mind, an understanding of discourse communities, and the feeling of empowerment in finding their own voice, then we too must be willing to put in the effort to educate ourselves in that manner.[2]

Freshman college students are remarkably accepting of paradigm shifts. Introducing these concepts at such a rudimentary level increases the possibility of developing students with comprehensive, cross-cultural understanding of the world, who are capable of identifying, comparing, and assimilating truth and useful information from whatever its source. Students might even learn that to be taught by Socrates is to be taught by Confucius, and to be inspired by Ghandi is to be inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. Learning rhetorical composition skills while also thinking about the concept of virtue and civility can serve a freshman student well, not just for their remaining collegiate studies but for life in general.


[1] The NCTE definition states, “As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities, and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to… Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought…Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes…[and] attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.”


[2] It may be difficult to ensure a fair and equal representation of cross-cultural examples in our classes, but this issue could be easily tempered if we ask our students to research and provide their own primary documentation based on their own cultures.


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