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A Critical and Rhetorical Analysis of William Cronon’s Only Connect

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A Liberal Education? Not According to Cronon. A Critical and Rhetorical Analysis of Cronon’s Only Connect.

While the term liberal education is heard from the most prestigious university to an inner city community college, the phrase itself has a hazy definition at best. While educators across America struggle with the definition of the phrase, William Cronon uses purpose, structure, and appeals in his essay “Only Connect: The Goals of Liberal education,” to define a liberally educated being and the characteristics that such an education should impart. Cronon capitalizes on inductive structuring to lead the reader along, gently building each new statement upon a foundation of previous ideas. This effectively leads the reader to a strange and new concept that a liberal education should nurture the human mind and inspire students to have love for their fellow humanity.

One purpose of Cronon’s essay is to emancipate the phrase liberal education from the debates and misconceptions that have swirled around the words since their creation while also inspiring educators to embody a teaching philosophy that attempts to create a spiritual love for those around them. While having no definition himself, Cronon states that he is able to answer his question with “a list […] of personal qualities: the ten values [he] most admire[s] in the people who seem to embody the values of a liberal education”(159). He wishes to move away from the “mantra-like”(156) and “empty”(156) definition that these words hold to a more functional, working explanation of a liberal education. Cronon’s list of characteristics provides the reader with a plausible understanding of a liberal education. While Cronon is unable to define a liberal education, he is competent in defining what a liberal education produces. By admitting that he is unable to define a liberal education and instead focusing on the characteristics that such an education embodies, Cronon is laying the groundwork for his revolutionary thesis.

Cronon allows the reader to easily see his purpose in the beginning of the piece by debating what a liberal education is. When the reader hears Cronon’s turmoil over this subject it is clear that he intends to answer, or attempt to answer this question within the following sections of his work. By making his purpose clear within this section of the essay Cronon effectively communicates what his piece will attempt to do, at least in part, and crafts the clear, easy to read prose which in weaved throughout the rest of the composition.

Besides giving the reader a workable definition of liberal education, Cronon also attempts to establish a connection between an education and love. Cronon insists that a “liberal education is about gaining the power and wisdom […] to connect.” (161) He is also trying to establish that while all educations should instill knowledge, they should also inspire love and respect for the world in general. A liberal education is not a definite thing. No course list or credit requirements can impart a liberal education for it is a way of “groping towards wisdom in full recognition”(161) of the limitations of humanity. While Cronon attempts to define a liberal education, it is not the main purpose of his essay. It is only a prelude to his ultimate statements about love, humanity, and the effect that a liberal education should have on both.

After Cronon shifts his purpose the reader is initially skeptical. While Cronon’s writing style allows the writer to follow his statements with ease, his shift in theme from an essaying attempting to define a liberal education to a persuasive piece leaves the reader somewhat confused. The two are drastically different. While a less talented writer may have lost his audience with such a dramatic shift, Cronon is able to weave his statements in such a way that while the shift in purpose is extreme, Cronon has prepared the reader with his list of qualities that a liberally educated being cherishes.

If the reader is able to see the value in Cronon’s list, then one is able to make the transition with only a small amount of confusion as the characteristics Cronon describes place a large value on “connecting”(161) with the world. Cronon allows the reader to see that connecting is more or less about having a spiritual love for fellow man. While Cronon gives up on defining a liberal education he intelligently accomplishes his purpose by stating what a liberal education produces and effectively utilizes these traits in convincing the reader that a liberal education should inspire spiritual love and respect for the world around them.

Throughout Cronon’s essay the structure that he employs plays a critical role in his gentle persuasion of the reader. Cronon is crafty and subversive in his persuasion of the reader through the use of his inductive structure. Beginning his essay with a question, “What does it mean to be a liberally educated person?”(156), Cronon temps the reader with an intriguing question. The reader is enticed with the proposition of an answer as the phrase is plastered on many surfaces and never thoroughly defined in modern society where a clear working definition would be exquisite. While entrancing the reader Cronon’s opening question serves another purpose as well: building the foundation for his thesis. While he attempts to answer this confusing question he slowly crescendos towards the new and controversial thesis, which explains the connection between love and a liberal education.

Cronon deftly uses the inductive structure to seduce the reader. While Cronon’s primary audience is one of skeptics, educators across America whose primary function in life is teach through evaluation and skepticism, he must gently introduce his thesis. Love and education are not generally associated in modern society. By questioning the definition of a liberal education which Cronon insists is “mired in controversy”(156), he interests these skeptics for they too have debated this very topic. Moving to his discussion of a liberally educated person in the next section of his essay, Cronon further entices educators across America by intelligently discussing what the qualities of a liberal education should impart. Cronon begins to introduce his thesis near the end of his paper.

He suggests that a liberal education’s success should be measured “by how well [they] succeed in training children and young adults to aspire to [his] ten qualities”(161). Further more he offers, “a liberal education is not something any of us could ever achieve”(162) but an education that excels in promoting a way of life that discards the “illusion that our educations will ever be complete”(162). Cronon’s attempt to define a liberal education ends with him asserting that a liberal education does not instill certain knowledge but promotes a way of life.

In the last paragraph of the essay Cronon finally introduces the connection between love and a liberal education. He states that a liberal education can be easily summed up in two words: “only connect”(162). While these two words describe the goals of a liberal education according to Cronon he asserts that they are also “an equally fine description of that most powerful and generous form of human connection we call love.”(162) By leaving his revolutionary thesis till the final paragraph of his essay Cronon almost proves his case before he has stated it. Cronon was wise in using this type of structure because if Cronon had stated his thesis early in the piece he might have alienated the reader. Clearly understanding the treacherous ground that he stands upon, Cronon intelligently uses structure to gently implant his thesis in the readers mind allowing Cronon to deliver his thesis without the shock that would have been present had he seen fit to use a more deductive structure.

While Cronon uses some rational appeals to convince the reader of his proclaimed connection between love and a liberal education, he focuses more on the emotions of the reader. Throughout the essay Cronon makes the reader feel saddened and heart struck by the absence of love inspiring curriculum. By discussing lists that are often used to describe a liberal education, Cronon forces the reader to see that while lists can describe and define what a student must undertake to accomplish their education, these lists cannot define a liberal education. Cronon reiterates that education is missing a critical element and agape love inspiring curriculum should be included. By the time Cronon states, “I would like to therefore like to return to my opening question and try to answer it (since I too find lists irresistible) with a list of my own,”(161) the reader has been convinced by Cronon’s previous statements that our course requirements are lacking.

When Cronon introduces his list of things a liberally educated being should portray, the reader is able to grasp his more abstract definition of a liberal education. Cronon uses emotional appeals quite well to gently nudge his ideas into the reader’s mind by allowing his arguments to . In conjunction with his inductive structure Cronon gently implants two ideas into the readers mind. One is that the current definition of a liberal education is seriously skewed and the other is that there is truly something lacking from our education. The reader feels the need for change. Through the use of emotional appeals Cronon effectively convinces the reader of that need and by the end of the piece the reader is open to Cronon’s final revolutionary thesis.

Love and education: while most people do no associate the two, Cronon makes a strong case for making a connection between the two. Through his use of appeals, inductive structure, and a strong shifting purpose, Cronon presents his case with a clear and logically organized paper. His ideas are sound. The present education system is seriously flawed. When Cronon attempts to connect love to a liberal education, at first the assumption seems vague and far-fetched, but after considering Cronon’s arguments, the idea seems plausible. If an education is not opening the eyes of the students and inspiring them with an awe and wonder of the world but focusing strictly on subject matter, a critical element is being neglected. Cronon’s argument that a liberal education should nurture the human mind is valid. A proper education must maintain a balance between both core subject matter and classes which inspire students “to connect” (162) to those around them. Without such a balance the results of the education system will be individuals without a love for humanity and without a desire to improve the world.

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