A Viral Conversation about School

For my required Stanford freshman writing requirement (PWR), I am taking the class, “Rhetoric of Education.” For my first rhetorical analysis, I wrote about a video of great impact in my high school years, one that triggered a deep reflection of the self, questioning of my life, and drive to action. If you haven’t watched this YouTube video before, grab some tissues and sit down. If you have watched this, you may find my analysis the video interesting.

The modern United States education system was introduced in the late seventeenth century. Since then, the system has adapted to both the needs and principles of the nation and brought about great development for society. At the same time, along its trajectory to the present day, it has encountered many debates about its purpose and administration that invited the opinions of some of the nation’s greatest thinkers. The rhetoric around the topic has, too, evolved along with time as society finds new ways to communicate and disseminate information. In the context of the video’s 2016 release, the United States had recently rewrote the decade-long No Child Left Behind act of strict federal control over the schools due to criticisms nationwide of its failure, leaving local decision makers the power to question, debate, and advocate for new ways of educating students. Prince Ea is one such advocate, whose provocative voice was heard in spoken word video on YouTube that went viral for its rhetoric. The video is a rhetorical masterpiece for the modern day because Prince Ea not only employs the traditional rhetorical elements of logos, pathos, and ethos, but supports each with elements available only to popular media to argue that school is anachronistic to today’s needs and advocate for its reformation.

It is no doubt some substantiation is needed to hold up the provocative statements that Prince Ea makes on why school is a failure, which is why Prince Ea makes extensive use of logos to effectively set up his points. He points out the origins of many elements of school that we take for granted. For example, he claims:

You were made to train people to work in factories,

Which explains why you put students in straight rows nice and neat. 

Tell them, sit still, raise your hand if you want to speak. 

Give them a short break to eat and for eight hours a day, tell them what to think. Oh, would make them compete to get an A, 

A letter which determines product quality, 

Hence grade A of meat.

By bringing to light the fact students’ grades are determined in this same way as meat products, he opens up the mind of the audience, with the intention of making it easier to uproot their previously held beliefs about the system at large. He shows the audience pictures of a phone and car from a hundred and fifty years ago followed by pictures of a phone and car from today, then presenting a picture of a classroom from the past and one from today, which are nearly identical, proclaiming, “Nothing has changed.” He compares Finland with the USA and invokes a cause-effect relationship between “shorter school days”, “homework is nonexistent”, “collaboration instead of competition” and, that its “education system outperforms every other country in the world.” He doesn’t mention the fundamentally different economies between Finland and the US, the practicality of adopting Finland’s system, or what “outperforms” means, which, rather ironically, is also based on the scores of the PISA test. By drawing attention to these facts out of context, Prince Ea effectively strengthens the perceived accuracy of his arguments.

Logos is uniquely shaped and enhanced by visual elements that only a YouTube video can deliver. He elevates these points by combining infographics, visualizations, and on-screen animations to elevate the most telling of figures. The video uses many twenty-first century widgets to augment the evidence presented, like an animation of boxes of student brains moving down the conveyer belt as he says, “You [school] were made to train people to work in factories.” Important catchphrases like “UNDERPAID” or “FUTURE” are projected on the screen. These design choices, although not altering the substance of his argument in anyway, gives his facts a professional look and tightens the viewers’ focus on the important takeaways they need to bring themselves to action. Facts and figures can only engage the average layperson so much, and the visual elements of Prince Ea’s video plays an important role in reinforcing his points.

After setting up his arguments with evidence and facts, Prince Ea engages the audience on a more personal level with his usage of pathos to draw feelings of unfairness and suppression. He builds up momentum and approval from the masses by continuously addressing defending the positions of both students and teachers, saying it’s neither side’s fault, who “work in a system without many options or rights,” but the policymakers, “most of which have never taught a day in their life.” By shifting the blame onto those in positions of power, he directs the frustration of the public to them by making them feel they are being taken advantage of for the interests of others who should have no business in driving the system. After brewing up emotions of frustration and unfairness among the audience, Prince Ea finishes the video by proposing a joint effort for fixing the system, empowering the audience by saying that, “I don’t have much faith in school, but I do have faith in people.” He reminds the audience that everyone is aligned in the purpose of a brighter tomorrow.

Pathos is shaped unique in the video by the setting of his monologue, a deliberate choice that elevates his emotional appeals. By setting the video in a courtroom, Prince Ea sets the debate in a tone of “us against them”, elevating the weight of the conversation as he accuses schools of crimes, saying “I call school to the stand and accuse him of killing creativity, individuality, and being intellectually abusive.” As he delivers strong emotional appeals in an otherwise rigid procedure driven by factual evidence that is framed by a court proceeding, he becomes an advocate against an otherwise rigid system, showing that he will speak out against the silence of moral injustice even if it’s not the most appropriate place to do it. Along Prince Ea’s monologue, grieving teachers and students in the courtroom are shown nodding along in silent agreement, making it seem Prince Ea is speaking on behalf of their suppressed thoughts. By using pathos to both elevate and diversify his emotional appeal approach, Prince Ea reaches a wider range of audience at a deeper level.

Finally, after drawing on the empathy of the audience, Prince Ea finishes off his arguments by drawing on and combining together numerous references to authoritative or historical figures via ethos. Throughout the video, Prince Ea makes multiple references to Albert Einstein, using the fish and the tree as an extended metaphor to convey his point that students are being judged by standards that don’t align with their potential. He begins his speech by saying, “Albert Einstein once said, everybody’s a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Throughout the video, he makes multiple reference to the fish and tree metaphor, saying near the end, “…I believe a world where fish are no longer forced to climb trees.” By inserting the name of Albert Einstein, Prince Ea makes otherwise ridiculous metaphors very effective in delivering his points, despite it being that, “The earliest appearance of this quote doesn’t come until decades after Einstein’s death” (Creighton 2014). Prince Ea employs another powerful technique by stating, “These [standardized] tests are too crude to be used and should be abandoned.” Then, he lets it be known the quote comes not from himself, saying, “Don’t take my word for it,” but from the inventor of standardized testing, Frederick J. Kelly. In doing so, he not only creates a rhyming effect that syncs well with the background music but elevates his own credibility.

Building on the choice of setting that helped enhance the pathos of the video, Prince Ea enhances the ethos of the video by the choice of characters he makes for the skit. He brings in a diverse cohort of students and teachers, from Hispanic to Asian, male to female, primary to secondary school, subtly alluding to themes of gender, race, and diversity that United States prides itself on. On the contrary, the school representatives is homogenous in race, age, and demeanor — expressionless middle-aged white men with smiles of condescension, a historically privileged demographic, while the advocate, Prince Ea, is an African American, a historically suppressed demographic. Those who know a bit about the history of the topic will inevitably see glimpses of Brown V. Board in this setup, a major milestone in favor of equal access of educational opportunity, implicitly establishing his side as the proper side to be on as per pedagogy. By drawing on these subtle but ingenious parallels via the simple choices of characters, he draws on continuity of themes and milestones of nationwide reverence, leaving those who still disagree a much taller moral mountain to climb. By making references to authoritative figures, Prince Ea successfully adds strong credibility to his arguments in a way that only a video can.

Rhetoric has played an important role in the development of America’s education system by engaging the audience and empowering them to advocate for change, and this spoken word video is no exception. What makes “I JUST SUED THE SCHOOL SYSTEM !!” truly stand out amongst all rhetorical writings that have been made to address the failures of the education system is the way Prince Ea can combine traditional modes of rhetoric with visual, audio, and cinematography effects that not only adds to his rhetoric but engages the viewer, which ultimately allowed it to become viral on YouTube and spread its message to millions. On a personal level, I still align myself wholeheartedly with the message in the video, for it is a topic that I engaged deeply with throughout my K-12 secondary education. This video had as much of an impact on my way of thinking as any when I first saw it, and that hasn’t changed. What has changed is a newfound appreciation for the rhetorical choices that Prince Ea makes in video that results in its effectiveness. The writing of this rhetorical analysis has helped me reflect more on the role rhetoric plays in shaping my opinions through my daily conversations and readings, as well as how I can wield the power of rhetoric to, hopefully one day, empower others for good.

Works Cited

Creighton, J. (2014, November 14). Our Epidemic of Fake Quotes From Real Scientists. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from https://futurism.com/internets-epidemic-fake-quotes-real-scientists

Williams, R. [Prince Ea]. (2016, September 26). I Just Sued the School System [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqTTojTija8

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