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Seeking the Truth about Rhetoric

Writing major takes long trek from ancient Greece to the deep South.

There are easier tasks in academia than reducing the vagaries of rhetoric to a simple, concise definition. "Rhetoric is such a sweeping topic. It's like trying to define literature," says Jeremy Engdahl-Johnson, a Whitman senior and writing major.

It was a year ago that Engdahl-Johnson began his own personal exploration of the subject matter with his first rhetoric class. His journey continued last summer when he and professor of speech Bob Withycombe, funded by a Perry Research Scholarship, traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, as scholars from around the nation and globe converged on the recently opened files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.

Created by a nervous Mississippi state legislature in 1956, the Sovereignty Commission employed dozens of informants and agents to monitor and record, disrupt and impede, the emerging civil rights movement. While the winds of change whistled through the South, the commission resisted, seeking to preserve and protect a social order predicated on the exclusive and oppressive rights of white citizens.

Years later state lawmakers sought to bury the commission's transgressions by having its files sealed for 50 years. It took nearly two decades of legal maneuvering by the American Civil Liberties Union and others before the courts ordered public release of the files. Once this particular window into the past was finally pried open, in March of 1998, it shed light on hundreds of reports, thousands of pages, and millions of words, a figurative treasure chest for historians - as well as for students of rhetoric and the written word.

"As a writer, I tend to look at rhetoric from a writer's perspective," Engdahl-Johnson says. "What interests me is the relationship that exists between the writer and his or her audience, and the techniques and strategies that can be used."

Withycombe and Engdahl-Johnson were among the first wave of people who made the trek to Mississippi to sift through the commission files. "We must have photocopied more than 600 pages of information. What we brought back definitely gives a writer's take on what was happening during that time period."

One explanation of rhetoric that Engdahl-Johnson favors was articulated in a time and place far removed from the American South of the 1950s. It was Aristotle, more than two millennia ago in ancient Greece, who argued that the essence of rhetoric is the capacity to perceive and utilize all available means of persuasion. "There are different modes of persuasion, different ways to argue and attack depending on the circumstance," Engdahl-Johnson notes.

Aristotle's basic premise is illustrated in one of the Sovereignty Commission reports Engdahl-Johnson and Withycombe brought back from Mississippi. The 58-page report details the ways in which faculty and staff at the University of Mississippi defended themselves against a long list of politically-inflamed allegations. The educators were accused of everything from fostering integration and communism to discrediting the Bible. The basic rights of Black Americans were under fire, to be sure, but so, too, were the rights of all people to free and unfettered thought.

"There were a number of methods and strategies used by people at the university to deny or even redirect the allegations," Engdahl-Johnson says. "It is interesting to see how professors in the law school, for example, chose to defend themselves compared to people in other academic departments. People in the law department were saying, 'Well, this is what the U.S. Constitution says, and this is why we have this legal right.' On the other hand, people in the biology department accused of teaching evolution would say, 'Well, this is what all the biology textbooks say.' "

One history professor was blamed for a master's thesis written by one of his former students. The thesis was supposedly defamatory because of its references to the breakdown of law and order in Mississippi during the Civil War. The thesis, said the report, "could well be the fruit" of the professor's earlier lectures. The professor responded by critiquing the thesis on its own terms. It was a poor thesis, he said, because it failed to articulate any new ideas or information, relying instead on arguments rendered and accepted by Southern historians many years before.

The report also singled out a law school professor who had supposedly admitted to being a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. That organization, the report pointed out, had been condemned by a congressional committee investigating communism, a New York legislative committee investigating seditious activities, and a California committee on un-American activities. The professor freely admitted his ACLU membership while emphasizing that the organization was not on the U.S. attorney's list of subversive groups. Its requirements for admission, he added, precluded communists and fascists as well as members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Taken as a whole, the report and its intermingling of accusations and responses illustrate another of Aristotle's basic tenets on rhetoric, Engdahl-Johnson says. That which is true and just is naturally superior to the opposite, Aristotle said, and is therefore easier to prove and more likely to persuade. "I think the university did a very good job of defending itself in the report," he said. Due to the political climate, "you can tell people were being pretty careful about what they were saying, but there is no question which side presented itself in a more logical and persuasive manner."

While the subject matter itself has been fascinating, what Engdahl-Johnson has learned most from his work with Withycombe is a more subtle understanding of rhetoric and its importance to a liberal arts education.

"Rhetoric is not just a way to manipulate the language," he says. "It's not just a tool used by politicians to get elected. An understanding of rhetoric makes it possible to break down and understand what others are saying or writing. I felt very informed, very knowledgeable as we went through hundreds of pages of information in the Sovereignty Commission files."

Looking back on Engdahl-Johnson's years at Whitman, no one can say he failed to pursue experiences that placed him in the path of the free flow of information. He worked with president Tom Cronin and dean of students Chuck Cleveland to create the Writing House, a residential option for students with a special interest in writing, and he served as its first resident assistant. He also served as editor of last year's highly successful Blue Moon, the campus literary magazine.

What writers do is write, however, and Engdahl-Johnson has been busy fulfilling the requirements of the writing major he designed. In addition to assembling a portfolio that includes a novel and a novella, he is writing two senior theses, one involving research on the Sovereignty Commission and one analyzing how literary genre impacts the author's voice or manner of expression.

Once he graduates, Engdahl-Johnson says he might devote a year or two to full-time writing. "I'm starting to think that I'd like to pursue fiction writing and see where that takes me," he says. "I'm finding that's where I have the most passion."

"At some point graduate school and a master's of fine arts is a definite possibility," he adds

Regardless of the direction his future takes, Engdahl-Johnson has no difficulty embracing Aristotle's generally optimistic view toward rhetoric and communication as tools that serve humanity's natural capacity to attain the truth.

For a writer, or anyone else for that matter, telling the truth is not a bad way to make a living. "Telling the truth," ponders Engdahl-Johnson. "Isn't that what writers are supposed to do?"