Home » (Experimental Thoughts) » A Maxim. An Explication. Of the Concept of Engagement in Education.

A Maxim. An Explication. Of the Concept of Engagement in Education.

[Y]ou cannot strangle a man when you are desirous of hearing what he has to say next.

—Gary Willis*

As soon as my eyes scanned this line, I put the book down. My thoughts shifted to my conversations with many classroom teachers about the difficulty of classroom management and, more precisely, the hostility that results from the concept of management whenever other humans are involved.

Education gurus, in an attempt to escape this hostility, have hijacked the word engagement to offer an alternate approach that has some of the same effects: the teacher must present the lesson in such a way that students are or feel “engaged” in it and so wish to step through its procedures. Classroom management, according to this model, is in the domain of rhetoric. It becomes less about habituation through rewards and punishments and more about an appeal to the audience’s opinions and previous understanding. The classroom teacher must arrange the lesson the way a rhetorician arranges a speech, complete with figures, tropes, colors, and other wiles of language. Although we might have hoped that the direct consequence of teaching would be learning, it seems, according to this model, learning is a later consequence. Instead, the direct consequence has become “engagement.” Now, the one criterion for judging the level of engagement would be the audience’s reaction, so pathos has priority over logos—according to this model, both ideally and actually. The hope is that the lesson’s logos follows pathos.

At this point in the explication, I have no decided judgment about the concept of engagement. On the one hand, I am wary of the priority of pathos, although its usefulness is obvious. On the other, it does seem wrong, or contrary to experience, to assume that learning is a direct consequence of the bare presentation of logos, if such a thing were possible.

Rhetoric concerns persuasion, which is often not much like learning. But maybe pathetic persuasion is a propaedeutic to learning, and the rhetorical an open door for the dialectical. . . .


* I found this in Rome and Rhetoric, the section titled “Antony: The Fox Knows Many Things.” Willis deploys this maxim in the middle of a comparative analysis of Shakespeare’s Antony in Julius Caesar and his Menenius in Coriolanus.

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One thought on “A Maxim. An Explication. Of the Concept of Engagement in Education.

  1. I think perhaps one of the deciding features about the use of pathos would be its subject. To me, there is much passion and emotion found in the knowledge itself, especially if I am given the context or purpose of the knowledge. Calculus was much more fun knowing that there was more than one way to think about it, and that Leibniz and Newton spent pages and pages fighting about which is the best way. But if the emotion called up is unrelated to the knowledge, but simply part of a gimimick to make the knowledge more palatable, like hiding medicine in pudding, then I am more skeptical. Who is to stop the students from simply spitting the medicine out, having eating the pudding?

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