Berlin’s “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” A Brief Summary and Notes


Teaching writing and rhetoric is teaching a certain kind of ideology. “Ideology is . . . inscribed in language practices, entering all features of our experience” (669, I’m using Susan Miller’s edited collection, The Norton Book of Composition Studies, 2009). How and what we teach makes assumptions that we can’t get away from, and each of the following 3 ways of teaching promotes a different ideology: cognitive rhetoric, expressionistic rhetoric, and social-epistemic rhetoric.

Cognitive rhetoric, which might be the continuation of current-traditional rhetoric, claims to be scientific. It has been based on psychology and emphasizes the real and the rational. Berlin cites Flower and Hayes as an example and states that this rhetoric “refuses the ideological question” because of its basis on science (671-672). I think Berlin also say that it is to some degree capitalistic.

Expressionistic rhetoric emphasizes the speaker and is therefore elitist. In this section, Berlin cites Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Jung. Thus, power lies in the individual. He then cites Peter Elbow and Donald Murray. Expressionistic rhetoric emphasizes talk about “Me.” Expressionistic is a response to and critique of capitalism and scientism, though the agencies of corporate capitalism easily use this one to their advantage, too.

Social-epistemic Rhetoric is the last one discussed in this essay, and Berlin cites Kenneth Burke as an example. From this perspective, the real is a relationshipbetween people, but that doesn’t make everything relative. We make our own histories. Berlin then cites Ira Shor and Karl Marx.

In conclusion, I’d like to cite two of what I think are Berlin’s most important statements. First, “[A] way of teaching is never innocent. Every pedagogy is imbricated in ideology, in a set of tacit assumptions about what is real, what is good, what is possible, and how power ought to be distributed” (682).


Finally, “A rhetoric cannot escape the ideological question, and to ignore this is to fail our responsibilities as teachers and as citizens” (682).

[When I read all this, it seems to me that if Berlin is correct, then we could take his logic forward and assume that, to some degree, every action is also an argument and every way of doing something assumes some particular way of thinking that would “give evidence” to the action. I’m suddenly reminded of Wayne Booth’s book, Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, but now is not the time to take a closer look at that.]

From Berlin, J. A. (1988). Rhetoric and ideology in the writing class. College English (50) 5, 477‐494.

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