"Becoming Symbol-Wise: Kenneth Burke’s Pedagogy of Critical Reflection," by Jessica Enoch


Enoch, Jessica. "Becoming Symbol-Wise: Kenneth Burke’s Pedagogy of Critical Reflection." College Composition and Communication 56.2 (2004): 279-296.

Reviewed by Keith Gibson, Auburn University
KB Journal 1.2 (Spring 2005)

In her article "Becoming Symbol-Wise: Kenneth Burke’s Pedagogy of Critical Reflection," Jessica Enoch describes a side of Kenneth Burke that is too-often neglected: Burke as a teacher. The focus of her article is Burke’s contribution to the 1955 Yearbook of the National Society of Education, "Linguistic Approaches to Problems of Education" (LAPE), in which he set forth a program of education that he believed would, in Enoch’s words, "abate those aggressive and competitive traits in students that eventually lead to global conflict." The article is a must-read for those interested in Burke and/or education: Enoch is thorough in her research, including insights into Burke’s thoughts from an examination of his personal letters, and timely in her analysis, demonstrating how Burke’s views can be brought into the classroom in these similar times.

The first important contribution of this article is the explication of the significant, yet under-read, Burke piece. In LAPE, Burke argues that 1950s education puts too high a premium on competition: "[the] serious student enters school hoping to increase his powers, to equip himself in the competition for ‘success,’ to make the ‘contacts’ that get him a better-paying job." Instead, he explains, school should be a place where students learn to be "exacting in [their] own ambitiousness to cancel off the many prompter ambitions that, given the new weapons, threaten to destroy [them]." Enoch’s summary of the article is excellent, but her discussion is made much richer for her archival work; she quotes several of Burke’s letters of the time that show his thoughts on his own teaching as he develops this philosophy. In a letter to Champion Ward, for instance, Burke noted that he was creating courses to "bridg[e] the gap between ‘literature’ and ‘life’"; to Charlotte Bowman, he wrote that he hoped to demonstrate to students "the momentous role that terminology plays in human thought and conduct"; and to Harold Kaplan, he wrote that he hoped these courses would develop "skill in the chosen subject, appreciation of literary attainments, the imaginative contemplation of human foibles, and the development of equipment for living in general." This glimpse into the intellectual inner-workings of Kenneth Burke is by itself worth the price of admission, and it makes Enoch’s examination of LAPE a unique piece of Burke scholarship.

Enoch does more than simply describe Burke’s work, however; she also brings the article into our time, demonstrating how LAPE can be viewed in conjunction with Freire’s critical literacy work to help us teach our students to be "symbol-wise" today. Pointing out Burke’s observation that rhetoric is "both the use of persuasive resources . . . and the study of them," Enoch draws parallels between this study of language and Freire’s critical reflection. Both Burke and Freire indicate that this analytic stage leads to political action, and it is at this point, Enoch explains, that the rhetoric and composition classroom enters the picture:

This dramatistic classroom would be a place where "the various ‘persuasions’ are brought together" and the "topic [that would] surely transcend them all [would be] the question of persuasion itself" (LAPE 299). The course’s focus would change dramatically (and dramatistically) as it would necessarily highlight and foreground reflection and, as Burke suggests, the "theoretical study of the forms in all persuasion" (300). . . . [T]he composition classroom would become a place where rhetoric is taught as a tool for critical investigation.

Burke’s work is clearly relevant to our current education system and society at large, and LAPE is an excellent piece of scholarship that can directly influence both. Jessica Enoch’s analysis and application of this work are a service to Burke scholarship, education studies, and, with any luck at all, rhetoric and composition students across the country.