Ethos is Dead

“Sometimes it’s not in our power to choose just what we keep and what we lose. And those who can’t see beyond the cost should consider this tale and what was lost. It ought to sway even a doubting Thomas: Better to lose your purse and keep your promise!”– Robert Browning

The powers that be have chosen to change the STAAR test. Naturally, it seems to have a bigger impact on English classes than any other content area. For one, our (I support English classes primarily) test scores were already lower than the other content areas. Secondly, they are adding even more writing to a test that was the only one to have writing as a component. Finally, they are removing the persuasive essay and don’t plan to tell us what it will be replaced with.

Taking a step back for a moment, I can see the wisdom behind this move. You want writing to be more authentic and having a set essay genre allows teachers to teach and reteach to the point where writing is formulaic. Yet, something is lost in the process. We used to teach our students about ethos, pathos, and logos. I’m not sure we are going to do that.

At the end of the day, teaching kids Shakespeare, Twain, Miller, Dickens, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck is certainly fun for us. We get to the point where we know these stories frontwards and backwards and when that happens there are all kinds of nuggets you can find. I’m certain there are life lessons in those great works of fiction and having to analyze them is a portable skill that can help down the road. However, it pales in comparison to reading, listening, and watching the grounded work of those trying to persuade them to think a certain way or to buy something.

Ethos, pathos, and logos was the foundation of that lesson. From there we could move onto logical fallacies that advertisers often use and begin to look at the tricks those in politics use to persuade us. Ethos is very simply the credibility that someone has. Credibility is earned. It isn’t given away. At least it shouldn’t be.

One of the things that struck me in the comments on my recent posts was the fact that my posts rely heavily on logos (facts). We know that pathos (emotion) is more powerful and effective in getting people to buy things or buy a certain point of view. My talent as a writer doesn’t allow me to do that for whatever reason. That isn’t a backhanded statement. Those close to me have asked me if I would try my hand at writing a novel. While I can develop stories in a general sense, I just don’t have the creative juices to create in that way. Quite frankly, I envy those that do.

As you might surmise, pathos is a potentially dangerous tool. It certainly is powerful when accompanied by facts, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s what makes it dangerous. The facts can strengthen an argument, but the key is the story. If the story rings true then it must be. We teach our students to do that. We teach them they can make stuff up because those grading the test are more likely to give them a good grade if they pull at the heartstrings. We are cultivating a whole generation of liars.

The normal arc of persuasion used to be that if someone proved they were reliable with their facts and knowledgeable of their area of study then they would develop credibility. With credibility they could simply fall back on their expertise. We would listen to them because they know what they are talking about.

The idea of “do your own research” sounds wonderful in a vacuum. It says that we shouldn’t rely on anyone’s credibility. Except we have to. No one is capable of going through the painstaking process of verifying everything. Ultimately, subject area experts do that in their area of study and work. We might “do our own research” but inevitably that ends up being a Google search where we find someone that reinforces what we already think. Maybe a YouTube video is involved. If so, so much the better.

So, we find ourselves listening to some jackass we’ve never heard of, never verified, never vetted, or scrutinized. He or she is somehow given credibility they have never earned. We are led by the nose by our heartstrings. We believe because it just feels true. We believe because its made simple for us. Simple is easy. Except none of it is really true. The truth is never simple. It might be brief. It might be succinct. The verbiage might be easy to understand, but it is never easy.

Author: sbarzilla

I have written three books about baseball including The Hall of Fame Index. I also write for You can follow me on twitter @sbarzilla.

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