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Arne Duncan, Road Trip! or the Rhetoric of Allusion

March 28, 2011
Which road will LAUSD take?

Image by Kate Holterhoff

What does an allusion do, rhetorically speaking?  It’s a term most of us are supposed to know in theory (i.e. a reference to something well known) and recognize in context (I say “come to the Dark side;” you think Star Wars or maybe “we have cookies”).  It’s also part of the Los Angeles Unified School District curriculum.  Their 8th grade reading standards include “analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies and allusions to other texts.”

I mention LAUSD specifically because that’s where Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently delivered his “The Road Less Traveled” speech.  What inspired him to make this poetic allusion?  In the opening of the speech, Duncan gives one reason: “the public school system of Los Angeles is at a crossroads today.” The theme of road trips and choices makes for consistent imagery.  No English teachers in the audience took off for mixed metaphors, not here.

Allusions do have their problems.  Like analogies, allusions rarely match the message perfectly.  Duncan is advocating for clear action; Frost’s poem expresses ambiguity.  Yes, the speaker famously took the road less traveled, but there’s no real indicator the choice was a wise one or that these roads actually differed in difficulty or virtue.   Duncan actually has to tell his audience how to interpret the poem—how to jump from the Frost lines about choice to his lines of easy/hard:

Or you can take the road less traveled, the harder road. I encourage you to take the road less traveled because, to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, it will make all the difference.

In other words, Duncan asks the audience to see the situation as two unequally traveled roads where

  1. Two unequally traveled roads means one is easy, and the other is hard.
  2. Doing what is good is hard; doing what is bad is easy.
  3. We want to do what is good.

If the audience follows Duncan’s leaps, then it is an easy walk to Duncan’s parting advice: “So Los Angeles, take the hard road, not the easy one. Seek tough-minded collaboration, not tough-minded confrontation.”  But if you know the poem, then these aren’t easy jumps.   Too many questions trip you up. Why is Frost’s less traveled road the harder road?  Or, if we interpret the poem (as high school taught me to) as a celebration of the creative life, then how does this poem connect to a speech so keen on prepping students for careers (a word mentioned eight times)?  On the other hand if you, like many scholars, read it as ironic, then why is this a good model to use for decision making?  Perhaps Frost himself said it best: “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky.”  In other words, the more the audience knows, the more they might wonder, why bring this poem up in the first place?

Here’s my guess:  Duncan isn’t talking to the English teachers with expertise in American poetry.  Instead, he addresses the much wider audience that knows the poem, sort of.  It is a poem most Americans, including high school students, are supposed to know, at least a little.  So quoting it can say:  look at all of us getting the same cultural touchstones; see how education brings us together.

But even that is a stretch.  Considering the speech in its entirety, Frost looks mostly decorative.   After the opening lines, Duncan doesn’t return to the actual poem except in the very general sense of two roads and choice. It’s not really about demonstrating how education in  American literature creates a shared cultural memory and sense of identity.  It’s not about how education teaches us to turn artistic expression into inspiration for action or moments of reflection.   Rather, I see the poem as a way to bring out Obama Adminstration’s standard script on education-reform-is-a-road metaphor, one that fits the “Race to the Top” school initiatives.  The allusion is a set-up, nothing in its own right.

So it’s generic imagery rather than a specifically grounded choice; this is also a political speech not a bid to rival Milton.  Nevertheless, careless allusions open you up to all kinds of trouble.  Frost isn’t the only one interested in crossroads.  It’s also a good place to meet the devil.

If you want to know more

  • Matt recently wrote about intertextuality, a concept in rhetorical and linguistic studies often used interchangeably with allusion.  For more on the similarities and differences between the terms, there is Joseph Michael Pucci’s The Full-Knowing Reader:  Allusion and the Power of the Reader in the Western Literary Tradition.
  • Duncan really did stick to the script of road metaphor.  His audience heard
    • “The good news is that the LA unified district is starting to move in the right direction.”
    • “The bad news, and the brutal truth, is that the greater LA area has so far to go. Too many schools are still mired in mediocrity.”
    • “parent engagement in schools must be a two-way street–and that road leads right back the dining room table.”
    • etc.
  • For the sake of my own focus and consistency, I left out Duncan’s other metaphor, that of a “perfect storm”.  He mentions it the opening of the address twice, which could allow an uncharitable reader to boil his imagery repertoire down to that of weather and the roads—adhering, however unintentionally—to Marianne Dashwood’s definition of polite, but deadly dull, conversation.  If this Austenian allusion leaves you wanting, see page 111 here.
  • Confused by the cookie allusion?  Get up to speed on geek culture here.
  • Duncan spoke at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles Education Summit.  Transcript, on which this analysis is based, can be found here.  A copy of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” can be found here.  For a collection of scholarly interpretations, some of which informed this post, see here. Katherine Kearns’s excerpt contains the Frost quote cited above.
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