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Political Literacy in Composition and Rhetoric

Political Literacy in Composition and Rhetoric

Defending Academic Discourse against Postmodern Pluralism

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Donald Lazere


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About the Book

In Political Literacy in Composition and Rhetoric, Donald Lazere calls for revival of NCTE resolutions in the 1970s for teaching the “critical reading, listening, viewing, and thinking skills necessary to enable students to cope with the persuasive techniques in political statements, advertising, entertainment, and news,” and explores the reasons these goals have been eclipsed in composition studies over recent decades.  Obstacles to those goals have included the emphasis in the profession on basic and first year writing at the expense of more advanced study in argumentative rhetoric, and on the privileging of students’ personal writing over critical study of both academic and political discourse.  Lazere further argues that theorists who legitimately champion students’ pluralistic local communities sometimes fail to recognize that liberal education can enable students to grow beyond their home cultures to critical awareness of national and international politics. Finally, he argues that the fixation in recent composition studies on liberally-inclined students and communities “on the margins” has eclipsed attention to the conservative conformity long prevalent in mainstream American society and education. His proposals for curriculum and pedagogy seek to introduce students to a more highly-informed, cogent, and open-ended level of debate between the political left and right.


Donald Lazere, professor emeritus of English at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, most recently taught at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the author or editor of five previous books, including Thinking Critically about Media and Politics.


Political Literacy in Composition and Rhetoric is a stunning book, filled with insights that rework the relationship between education and politics on the one hand and critical literacy and pedagogy on the other hand. At a time when critical thinking and civic literacy, if not democratic politics itself, are under attack, Donald Lazere’s book is a crucial and brilliant reminder of how important reading, writing, and literacy in general are to developing the formative culture necessary for a substantive democracy.”—Henry A. Giroux, Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy, McMaster University

“The view that reasoned argument is an instrument of white, male, Western dominance still haunts the field of rhetoric and composition like a guilty conscience, as does the boundless glorification of diversity, marginality, and pluralism. Lazere’s book definitively challenges this disdain for rational argument—and academic discourse—showing that such an attitude can easily undermine the interests of the oppressed groups it claims to speak for while removing a needed counterforce to the prejudices and anti-intellectualism of mainstream American culture. In the process Lazere makes a compelling argument for putting debate about political and civic issues at the center of American education.
“Among the many strengths of this book are the amusing autobiographical passages based on Lazere’s unique ‘view from Middle America.’ Another is Lazere’s ability to summarize and synthesize a stunningly vast quantity of scholarship and social criticism that ultimately defines a distinctive tradition of critical thinking and critique. Both Lazere’s story and his polemic speak urgently to teachers and students across all the disciplines, none of which is untouched by the problem of political illiteracy.”—Gerald Graff, author of Clueless in Academe
“Simultaneously memoir and manifesto, this brilliant new book by Donald Lazere draws on the author’s decades of engagement in both political polemics and composition theory. Its main argument—that academic discourse is not the oppressive iron cage that postmodernist comp-rhet theorists make it out to be—is articulated with erudite precision and hard-earned passion. The argument he puts forth is long overdue; it could still change the direction of the field in a revolutionary way.”— Thomas Huckin, professor emeritus, University of Utah
“With his new book, Political Literacy in Composition and Rhetoric: Defending Academic Discourse against Postmodern Pluralism, Donald Lazere adds significantly to the field of composition and rhetoric, asking scholars to move away from an uncritical, postmodern view of composition and rhetoric and toward a critical reflection on the value of eloquence by privileging data-driven, well-reasoned academic discourse. Sure to provoke conversation, Lazere’s work is a strong voice in the developing chorus telling us that our composition and rhetoric scholarship and practice are in danger, not just of being derivative and stagnant but also of disenfranchising an already oppressed large segment of our citizenry.”—Albert C. DeCiccio, Labouré College