Speaking to Crisis: Intellectuals, Literacy, and Public Discourse
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This dissertation analyzes public-intellectual work that deploys crisis tropes in its treatment of literacy, arguing that such work provides insight into the influence that intellectual engagement might exert on discourse in the public sphere. From A.S. Hill’s lament that freshman entering Harvard in 1874 could barely construct a legible sentence to Stanley Fish’s charge that millions of college graduates earning degrees in 2005 did so without learning what a sentence was, the relationship between literacy and the communicative skills required of productive citizens has been a constant source of concern. Between these two historical moments, this relationship has been an undertheorized feature of debates surrounding racial uplift, feminist protest, and America’s role as a world power. When interlocutors in such debates minimize the significance of literacy practices, they encourage rhetorical action driven by a coercive conception of social crisis that limits critical engagement on the part of the public. I argue that the public intellectual’s capacity to facilitate rhetorically literate discursive exchange at the level of the mass public can transform the paralysis of crisis into possibility. I reframe well-known debates between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and Mortimer Adler and Glenn T. Seaborg in terms of the rhetorical models they offer for responsible public-intellectual work.