If there is one thing that our Upper School has always prided itself upon, it is that, through our humanities program, we train excellent writers. Over the course of their four years in humanities, students constantly draft essays and hone the skill of communicating persuasively. We, their teachers, strive to give detailed and specific feedback, imparting certain skills that we think are essential to a growing writer.
So, you, might ask, if this setup has worked well for past years, why are we now introducing a rhetoric sequence that is separate from our humanities courses? What can it do that the past approach could not? The answer is that a formal rhetoric sequence gives dedicated focus and direction to a skill that we believe is central to a classical education: speaking and writing with persuasion.
While the full extent of our curriculum has not yet been perfectly explored, let us speak now about the excellent text we chose for this, our inaugural year. The Office of Assertion by Scott Crider is a book that essentially distills all the problems a first-year student faces when trying to break free from the typical mold of the five-paragraph essay. It first starts with the very important premise that students are capable of excellent and worthy work. While this may seem to be a foregone conclusion for us at Clapham it is becoming an increasingly rare assumption in the wider world of education. In order to demonstrate this, the author provides an example of a student essay at the beginning of the book. The specifics of the essay are ones that our Ancient World Humanities class will face. It is an essay focused on answering, through close textual analysis, a question about The Odyssey. I found this example to be extremely helpful not only because it gave our students a concrete bar to strive for, but because it places them in the community of classical students. It lets them know that they are not alone in wrestling with this project and gives them an idea of what excellence looks like in the context of their own assignments.
Alright, we have accepted that students are capable of worthy work and that Crider clearly knows the value of a well-placed example, but what are some of these skills that are so essential? There are many but for the sake of time, I want to focus on his section about analysis and synthesis.
One thing that students who experience the Clapham model are very good at is narrating. In fact, by the time they get to Upper School they are often a bit too good at it. They are capable of recalling the whole text and so often they are tempted to do so in an essay, making it more of an excellent narration than an argumentative essay. Crider combats this tendency by meeting them where they are. He assumes that they will have a deep and detailed knowledge of the text at their fingertips and then gives them specific guidelines on how to use that knowledge effectively. He details not only how to use a quote well but also how to limit the scope of your argument to the relevant details. Don’t get me wrong, these are skills that we have always tried to teach our students, but what I find so exciting about this text is that it will hopefully give us a chance to get all our students solidly started down this path in their first year. And once they have this foundation of how to write a solid argumentative essay on one text, the possibilities of what we can do in the following years expand dramatically.
There are many other skills and ideas that Crider presents, and as I read the book I thought, “Ahh that is how to teach that.” As such, I would encourage you all to take a look at this text and read along with us as we embark on this project to teach rhetoric, which is, in the words of Aristotle, “The faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”