Chapter 2 of Lend Me Your Ear continued...
In similar fashion, when the inclination arose in my mind to write a book about the rhetorical constructions of deafness it seemed that the most gifted of speakers and writers in the classical period, Cicero, might serve well enough as my model. My portrayal here is surely neither the most true nor most false (nor the most beautiful): it is a composite of excerpts—relying on personal interviews and published materials, collected works, and suitable (and perhaps unsuitable) precepts. In that composite sketch, the three sections that follow redraw, rhetorically, the territory of deafness as a disability in the nexus of literacy. First, I consider the "problem" of deafness in education from a rhetorical framework, taking Quintilian's concept of the vir bonus dicendi peritus (the "good man [sic] speaking well") as my cue. Second, at the heart of my own argument about deafness, literacy, and rhetoric, I explore a highly problematic conflation: what I call the "literacy legacy" of viewing literate acts (reading, writing, speaking, listening, gesturing) as either language or communication. Theories and practices of literacy—as either product or process, as oral or literate, as cross-cultural or community-based, or as academic or "critical"—come into consideration here, particularly as they intersect constructions of "deafness" in deaf education. Third, in an act of opening more than of closure, I turn to the subjects, turn to lend my ear to those who have been (or are being) educated in the deaf educational systems; I turn to see what signification they make, what maps they draw, of their own literate lives.
When Education Falls on Deaf Ears
As he begins book 12, which closes his voluminous Institutio Oratoria, the Roman educator and orator Quintilian turns back to the goal of the lifelong rhetorical education he has just set forth in these synoptic books—he turns again to consideration of the vir bonus. Can this "good man speaking well," wonders Quintilian, can this Perfect Orator be indeed a good person as well as a good speaker?
The answer to this question, claims Richard Lanham, "has underwritten, and plagued, Western humanism from first to last"—both in our considerations of how citizens/students ought to be taught (indeed, even in educating "students" to become "citizens") and in considering what they should be taught. Furthermore, in attempting to answer the question "in the West from the Greeks onward," Lanham posits that we have tended to offer two defenses. The first, "the Weak Defense," simply begs the question, "argu[ing] that there are two kinds of rhetoric, good and bad. The good kind is used in good causes; the bad kind is bad. Our kind is the good kind; the bad kind is used by our opponents." The second, and far more interesting and relevant for my own argument here, is the "Strong Defense," which "assumes that truth is determined by social dramas, some more formal than others but all man-made. Rhetoric in such a world is not ornamental but determinative, essentially creative. Truth once created in this way becomes referential, as in legal precedent."
It is just such a "strong defense" for the goal of Western education at large—particularly, I believe, since the eighteenth century, with the rise of mass literacy—that has stood at the center of deaf education. It is no mere coincidence that deaf education and its concomitant social drama "came of age," and have remained of age contentiously, at the point in Western history when literacy became more commonplace and education (a rhetorical education, at that) was made available beyond the aristocracy and clergy. Nor is it coincidence either that a tradition of educating "the good man speaking well" would come to see deafness as a puzzle at best, an ugly hole to fill at worst.