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Presidential Prose During the years since I gave up teaching law to become a university president , I have reflected more than once on the rhetorical dimensions of the academic enterprise I left and of the one that I have taken up. It is a truism among law professors that the greatest judicial opinions hold sway through their persuasive force no less than through their doctrinal soundness. The legal tradition has developed, in part, through judicial opinions ignited with rhetorical fire. Our greatest judges-from John Marshall to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Louis Dembitz Brandeis-have always understood the beguiling allure of the piquant aphorism and what Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, in his elegant essay on "Law and Literature," called "the mnemonic power of alliteration and antithesis" and "the terseness and tang of the proverb and the maxim." What judge has written a more rhetorically powerful statement than ChiefJustice Marshall's bold insistence, in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), that "we must never forget that it is a Constitution we are expounding." What scholar has written a more rhetorically conclusive sentence than Oliver Wendell Holmes's sweeping pronouncement, in The Common Law, that "the life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience." What moralist has written a more rhetorically persuasive exhortation than Justice Brandeis's exhilarating assertion, in New State Ice Company v. Liebmann (1932), that "if we would guide by the light of reason, we must let our minds be bold." A judge's use of language is not a matter of indifference. Lawyers know, by training and instinct, that rhetoric has consequences. But too often the rhetoric that university administrators use to state their views lacks the energy and spirit that gives persuasive authority to the rhetoric of judges and lawyers. One of the most important ways in which a university community develops a sense ofitselfis from the public statements ofits academic leaders . Presidential prose can help to shape a university's vision of itself and to reinforce its sense of educational purpose. Yet university presidents are forever forced to avoid the pungent phrase, to blue-pencil the luminous 49 50 Idealism and Liberal Education metaphor, to give up speaking in their own voices for fear ofcausing controversy or giving offense to one or another group whose goodwill is essential to achieving the university's larger goals. Although university presidents may draft their own public statements , they dare not issue them until they have been approved by dozens of colleagues sensitive to the concerns of the university's various constituencies . During that process of editorial approval, any brightness of language that may have lit up the president's first draft is inevitably made dimmer. Any element of personal style that may have lent grace or lucidity to the first draft is inevitably rooted out. Thus, a firm assertion that "a liberal education is essential to the intellectual development ofstudents so that they may discover who they are" is likely to emerge corseted with qualifiers, so that it states, limply and defensively , that "liberal education, broadly conceived, as a preparation for life, meets the functional needs ofstudents by providing them with an exposure to the treasures ofthe past, an opportunity for social and emotional development , and a preprofessional experience that serves their career aspirations at the same time that it maintains avenues of upward mobility in a democratic society." The process deforms thought when it ought to refine it, homogenizes prose when it ought to sharpen it. Given the public pitfalls awaiting presidential prose that aspires to individuality of style, is it any wonder that the rhetoric of university presidents is so often cliched, prolix, wishy-washy, and unconvincing? ...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780472023837
Related ISBN
9780472086702
MARC Record
OCLC
794701616
Pages
200
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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