Observe and Learn: Liberating Imitation through and from Science

By Eddie Glenn.

Published by The International Journal of Science in Society

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Article: Electronic $US5.00

For two thousand years, imitation played a central role in rhetoric education. From ancient Greece, through the Roman Republic and Empire, and well into the 17th century, imitation was considered an integral component of rhetoric education. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, imitation was not held in such high regard. As Dale Sullivan (1989) has argued, rhetoric educators of that era, inspired by Romanticism, substituted genius of the individual for invention, one of the five canons of rhetoric, and considered rhetoric to be an art founded in science. Such a scientific grounding, along with an emphasis on individual genius, precluded imitation as a pedagogical method in rhetoric education. According to Sullivan, “Romanticism, with its emphasis on genius…was perhaps the first movement strong enough to challenge classical imitation as a pedagogical method.” The tension between science and imitation that first emerged two centuries ago continues today in rhetoric education, as illustrated by Sullivan’s claim that “the modern composition teacher is often reticent about adopting imitation as a pedagogical method, at least in part because of the prevailing assumptions in our world view.” Ironically, recent scientific developments, specifically in the area of neuroscience, have provided support for imitation in rhetoric education. Research conducted by Vittorio Gallese and Alvin Goldman in 1998, along with subsequent studies that investigated the neurological connection between observation and performance, support the ancient emphasis on imitation in rhetoric education. Gallese and Goldman, for example, found that observation of an action produces a neurological “plan” in the observer to emulate that action. Such findings suggest that imitation may be under-utilized in areas of education involving performance skills, including composition and public speaking. In this presentation, I will examine the tension between science and imitation that emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I will then discuss the recent scientific research in the observation/performance connection, and the implications that research has for rhetoric education.

Keywords: Imitation, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Neuroscience

The International Journal of Science in Society, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp.169-180. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 474.170KB).

Dr. Eddie Glenn

Doctoral Student, Communication Studies, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA

Eddie Glenn is a doctoral student in the Communication Studies Department at the University of Kansas. His primary areas of interest are political communication, public sphere and democracy studies, and rhetoric education.