Why do we need the art of rhetoric today?
The fear of public speaking is known as glossophobia. And pretty much everywhere I look, the statistic given is that 74% of people today suffer from some form of speech anxiety. 74%, virtually 3 in 4 modern people! It is the highest ranked phobia, followed by the fear of death or the end of life, and third, the fear of spiders and other arachnid creatures. The fear of public speaking also, they say, has a 10% impairment on wages, and often gets in the way of career advancement. It sounds to me like we need the art of rhetoric today!
But perhaps you feel that public speaking itself is overrated. Can’t the majority of people get along fine without schoolroom gimmicks to help them master their fears? It’s true that not everyone is going to get put on the spot by Mrs. Bailey and asked to give part of a trifold speech on the trivium! But maybe our failure to train students in the art of rhetoric has some connection to the lack of genuine leadership in our culture. I like the quotation from Warren Bennis’ classic:
“Leadership is a word on everyone’s lips. The young attack it and police seek it. Experts claim it and artists spurn it, while scholars want it… bureaucrats pretend they have it, politicians wish they did. Everybody agrees that there is less of it than there used to be…. Leadership is like the Abominable Snowman, whose footprints are everywhere but [he is] nowhere to be seen”
Warren Bennis and Burt Nannus, Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge
Perhaps we’re wrong to dismiss the art of rhetoric, confining it narrowly within the bounds of “public speaking,” when really it involves the ability to use words to influence people through your ethos, pathos and logos (your character, your passion and your reasoning)—in a word, through leadership. And isn’t that exactly what we need in a post-modern world: humble and authentic Christian leadership?
It doesn’t need to be a speech, it could be a committee meeting or a debate with your next-door neighbor. In our post-modern world, the need for situational rhetoric humbly used to lead and influence others has never been greater. Most people today have not been trained in the art of dialectic, and therefore may not listen to an airtight logical argument, regardless of its truthfulness, but they can be influenced by a person. As Chuck Evans and Robert Littlejohn argued in their book Wisdom and Eloquence, if there’s an art of the Trivium our culture needs, it’s the art of rhetoric:
“While rhetoric makes use of logic, its effectiveness does not depend on an audience’s acceptance of airtight, deductive arguments…. Where the logician is stymied by an audience who responds… ‘That might be true for you…’ the rhetorician is equipped to take up the challenge of persuasion and to continue a profitable discourse, even when facing the most stubborn anti-rationalist.” (132-3)
We need the art of rhetoric today to fill the void of leadership in a post-modern world.
What did the art of rhetoric look like in the classical tradition?
The old Latin mnemonic for the trivium went like this: Grammatica loquitur (Grammar or literature speaks!), Dialectica verba docet (Dialectic teaches words), Rhetorica verba colorat (Rhetoric colors words, gives them spice and flavor, adds beauty and personality). In this way rhetoric is the natural culmination of the arts of the trivium.
After reading and interpreting the best thoughts that have been written, and then having discovered the truth through discussion, the student now colors it, flavors it, and makes it their own through spoken or written words. Perhaps this makes it clear that rhetoric was not simply a practical job skill at the time, but was a tool of learning.
Who has not experienced the sensation of trying to put something into your own words, or talking something through aloud that you didn’t quite understand, and then, aha! Eureka! Understanding dawned. It was the process of speaking or writing itself that clarified and crystalized the idea that you had been seeking to grasp. And not only that, early Greek orators developed many of the best techniques and practices for studying and learning and memorizing material, like the method of common places, sometimes called a mind palace today.
Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Rhetoric I.2); in other words, rhetoric is the ability to see before you a host of options for how you might influence or persuade someone. Andrew Kern, the president of the CIRCE Institute, has given his own gloss on Aristotle’s definition, saying that “Rhetoric is the art of decision-making in community.” What could be a more practical skill than that? Who doesn’t have to make decisions in a community on a daily basis? As a way of learning, then, rhetoric is endlessly applicable to all spheres of life, because in every subject, there are means of persuasion and there are decisions to be made. And one way to tackle any subject is to prepare to speak or write persuasively about it.
In the Bible we might be more inclined to think of the sages, and wise men, the counsellors of the king, rather than of orators, but in fact, the first Greek practitioners of rhetoric were called Sophists, which meant teachers of wisdom, sages. From the beginning wisdom and eloquence were united. In fact, perhaps the greatest early teacher of rhetoric, Isocrates, said that
“A well-educated man… must have the ability to deliberate and decide [that’s decision-making!] on matters of all sorts [not just a few subjects, but all!], so he must listen to the poets, learn from the sages, associate with the wisest, and develop a well-equipped mind…. The right word, says Isocrates, is the surest sign of good understanding.” (emphasis added, paraphrase by Arthur Holmes, Building the Christian Academy, 13)
How is a teacher to know for sure if a student understands? What does the student say? What words does she use? It’s as simple and as profound as that: “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word fitly spoken” (Prov 25:11).
Of course, back then as always, there have been those who take a good art, and turn it to evil. And so, you have perhaps heard of other Sophists and of their run-ins with Socrates. So we don’t mean by the art of rhetoric, the ability to make the worse appear the better cause, to call darkness light and light darkness, to paint evil as if it were right and to defraud the helpless for monetary gain. Such rhetoric there will be ‘till kingdom come, and as C.S. Lewis said of philosophy, there must be good rhetoric out there, if only to combat all the bad and evil rhetoric reverberating in our ears. And the rhetorical tradition agreed. Just as there is no true eloquence without wisdom, the true orator, the genuine leader must be a good person.
As the Roman teacher Quintilian put it, “We are to form, then, the perfect orator, who cannot exist unless as a good man, and we require in him, therefore, not only consummate ability in speaking, but every excellence of mind” (1.PR, J.S. Watson, 4). What a vision for education! How far reaching! How all-inclusive!
Personally, it makes me think of the likes of William Wilberforce, the British stateman who led the cause for the abolition of the slave trade, and the vision of Clapham School to send out men and women who will cultivate goodness, truth and beauty in a world that desperately needs it.
How do we train students in the art of rhetoric at Clapham School?
Well, just as in the classical tradition, training in the art of rhetoric begins in our students’ earliest days, before they even come to school. Quintilian called on the Roman families of his day to ensure that their children’s early nurses and guardians should speak only the best Latin, and he encouraged the use of progymnasmata or composition exercises for the young.
It’s better never to learn bad habits of speech or writing than to have to unlearn them later. This is why we choose beautifully written pieces of literature in even our youngest grades. No twaddle! Elegant and fitting words and expressions do not come by accident, but need to be stored in students’ memories. So we memorize and recite the words of poets, filling students’ hearts and minds with beautiful thoughts and language. We have them all perform a Shakespeare play in Middle School to develop their powers of expression, just as ancient rhetoric students would be sent to the acting teachers to learn how to speak clearly and with feeling.
The ancient principle here is called mimesis or imitation. Imitation is the mother of all art, went the ancient maxim, whether it be the language arts of the trivium or arts like painting or sculpture. In fact, it’s because of this ancient principle of imitation that we have students narrate what they’ve read. It’s not just a test of comprehension or motivation to pay attention, it’s an opportunity for students to practice fluent speech, articulate expression, and imitation of the style and wisdom of an eloquent author.
Because it’s so commonplace we can tend to really underrate the value of this traditional practice, but it’s not something unique to Charlotte Mason; in Genung’s Outlines of Rhetoric from the late 19th century, one of his frequent school-work exercises is to have students read up on a topic at home and come in and recite from memory in front of the class all that he had read. Because of this I adopted a practice back when I was teaching 8th grade, of having my students come up to the podium and perform their narration whenever they were called on to narrate, and for that particular crew of students, it did wonders. They had gotten so comfortable with each other and with the practice that they had forgotten, or maybe they had never realized, that they were actually teaching the class, presenting to their classmates. So we worked on expressing ourselves well, using gestures, adding a little drama in there, and presto, narrations livened up and so did their learning!
Further back in the 1800s John Locke the British philosopher bemoaned how in his day there were many gentlemen of breeding and education, who nevertheless couldn’t express themselves well in speech or writing, “who [couldn’t] so much as tell a story as they should, much less speak clearly and persuasively in any business”; he said the fault was in their education: they had memorized the rules of rhetoric, all the figures speech and types of public address, but they had never been required to speak, regularly and fluently, day in and day out (Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 141).
The schools had been treating rhetoric as if it were a science, a learned body of knowledge, rather than an art, a practiced skill. So Locke recommended that young children be asked to narrate the stories they had just read or heard. The ability to read a work of literature, and then tell it back in your own words faithfully and with style, is no mean skill. Not only is it the surest test of understanding, as Isocrates said, it is, according to Charlotte Mason, “a power which a barrister, a publisher, a scholar, labours to acquire” (Vol. 3 School Education), but which children learn with ease.
And, of course, there are a thousand other writing and speaking exercises that Clapham students can be assigned. And this is why we have copybooks for every student in every subject. Because our expectation is that as students grow and mature and fill their minds with good, true and beautiful thoughts, they must then be asked to communicate them, to engage in the art of elegant and persuasive expression. And this is one of the main tools by which a student learns in every subject.
They must write, they must speak, they must express themselves, they must defend their viewpoint in front of the class, as they are cross-examined by teacher or fellow student. They must, in short, be active in the work of learning, not passive receptacles of an endless flood of teacher-talk with no response required.
In fact, if I could sum it up, I would say that this is one of the main problems with modern education. In large classrooms students are passive recipients of the PowerPoint lecture; on tests, they are required to simply choose the right answer from a set of four or five options given them. They have viewed students as receptacles rather than the agents of their own learning; and teachers are then the dispensers of knowledge as from on high, as opposed to their coaches in the art of learning.
Some schools try to make their students give speeches all the time, or write research papers even from a young age. But the problem with that is that students don’t always yet have articulate thoughts or answers to the deeper problems of life. So like Socrates, we prefer to train them first to have real and backed-up opinions (dialectic) based on the great books that they have read (grammar). And then we give them many real-life opportunities to think out, express and defend their opinions in front of others, like for instance, an Upper School Colloquium, where our high school students are given an hour and a half to attempt to tackle a mammoth question, like “What is truth?” or “What is the best form of government?” This naturally hones their powers of communication and develops their heart to care about things that really matter.
And finally, this whole process culminates at Clapham in a Senior Thesis, the first of which we will host this spring (2018). In completing their thesis, seniors draw from the wisdom they have read in the great books Humanities program (grammar), think carefully alongside others about how to solve a problem in the modern world (dialectic), and then present their thoughts in a persuasive way through a major research paper, presentation and defense (rhetoric).
In this way, the senior thesis is a culmination of their training in the liberal arts of the trivium. And thus our seniors will begin to embody the vision of Clapham School, as they creatively address how Christians should respond to a problem in the modern world. Then they are sent out as servant-leaders, to serve Christ by cultivating his goodness, truth and beauty in the world.
And so, while the liberal arts may have fallen on hard times at other schools. Here at Clapham we know that students must be trained in the trivium, the tools of learning, from the earliest grades on up, since after all our goal is not simply to feed them on the fish of subjects, but to prepare them for a life of fishing for the truth, and indeed to send them out as servant-leaders, and maybe even, as fishers of men.
Earlier installments: The Liberal Arts of the Trivium, The Liberal Art of Grammar, The Liberal Art of Dialectic.