Rhetoric Interview

The following is a slightly edited version of a survey given me by Joshua Butcher – rhetoric instructor at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida – regarding the teaching of rhetoric in a classical, Christian setting.

Josh:  How long have you taught rhetoric in a classical education setting?
Jim:  I taught Classical Rhetoric for 18 years at Logos School to 11th graders. I have also written a rhetoric text – Fitting Words: Classical Rhetoric for the Christian Student – and lectured through it.

Josh:  What are the essentials of rhetoric that every classically educated student should have?
Jim:  Do you mean, “What are the essential rhetorical skills that every classically educated student should seek to master?”

Josh: Let’s run with that.
Jim:  First, the fundamental skills of rhetoric that have been recognized for millennia are invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery. Invention includes developing both special and general lines of argument; thus, a rhetoric student must master not only the details of whatever topic he is speaking on, but also practical skills of formal logic. Arrangement includes the six parts of a discourse, knowing how those should be modified when applied to different types of oratory. Style includes an ability to invest words with clarity and elegance, including a familiarity with ornamental figures—especially the ability to use them in a way that appears natural, artistic, not artificial. Memory includes the ability to recall to the mind the matters, words, and arrangement of what they have invented, so that they can speak confidently in a variety of settings, with or without notes. Delivery includes the command of proper voice, countenance, and gesture. These skills provide what Dorothy Sayers would call the rhetorical tools of learning.

Josh:  That’s a good answer, but you said “first.” Is there more?
Jim:  There is. Second, students must develop copiousness, filling their minds and hearts with true thoughts and wise words, storing up virtue within them so they naturally overflow with virtuous words to others. Third, students must understand ethos, pathos, and logos so that they can apply these to themselves, their hearers, and their words in a godly manner. This implies that they must understand their audience, grasping the “nature of the soul,” so that they may use different appropriate methods for different audiences. All of this should be learned through theory, imitation, and practice. Also, it must all be taught under the Lordship of Christ.

Josh:  I’ll ask about that last part in a minute, but first, how many years of formal training in rhetoric should a classically educated student receive by the end of high school? 
Jim:  All their education from childhood onward should be directed toward rhetoric as the capstone of their education, but they should have at a minimum two years of formal training in the theory and philosophy of rhetoric. And to be of true benefit, what they learn from those two years should be applied in the learning of all their other subjects from that time onward.

Josh:  Ideally, what would the curriculum in formal training in rhetoric look like in a classical education setting?
Jim:  Well, for a short answer, see my Fitting Words text!

Josh:  Okay, let me hear your long answer.
Jim:  Ideally, a group of eager students, well prepared in the classical disciplines – languages and logic, poetics and progymnasmata – would meet daily with a master teacher, one who not only understands the theory of rhetoric, and who has ready at hand examples of the theory from the greatest speeches available, who is also a master of rhetorical skills himself, as well as being a truly good man. Together they would discover what the Bible teaches about our use of words, as well as what the ancients such as Plato taught. They would read and discuss the greatest ancient texts on rhetoric, such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian,  along with the greatest speeches from the Bible and history. They would try to discover how these speeches apply the methods handed down to us by those ancient masters. They would practice the tools learned in the writing and delivering of speeches, critiqued by the instructor and their peers, for continued improvement. The final test of all this would be the writing, presenting, and defending of a thesis.

Josh:  What makes rhetoric different from an Omnibus class; or a class in History, English, or Theology?
Jim:  Formal rhetoric, to speak from Sayer’s perspective, is the key exercise of the poetic age. These other courses would not teach the detailed philosophy, theory, vocabulary, and methods of speaking and writing as a unified art, as a rhetoric course would.

Josh:  What similarities exist between rhetoric and an Omnibus class; or a class in History, English, or Theology?
Jim:  Briefly, I would say that elements of these subjects would continually touch on and inform the students’ learning of formal rhetoric. The methods of formal rhetoric should be applied by the instructors and students within these other courses, as they read, write, and make presentations.

Josh:  So what does it mean to teach rhetoric under the Lordship of Christ?
Jim:  Basically, it means that all that we do, including learning and practicing rhetoric, must be done in loving obedience to and in faithful imitation of the Lord Jesus.

Josh:  Can you flesh that out a bit?
Jim:  Sure. This means, first, that the rhetoric teacher must himself be a disciple of Christ, leading fellow disciples in the wisdom of His Word. The teacher must love God and love rhetoric before students who are also learning to love what they ought. This means, second, that we must learn what the Bible says about rhetoric. For example, students should be taught that, in learning to use words effectively, we are imitating God, who characterizes Himself as a speaking God (Isa. 46:5-11), who by His powerful word created all things (Gen. 1:3), sustains all things (Heb. 1:3), saves His people (Luke 8:15), and accomplishes His will (Isa. 55:11). We are to use words righteously (Prov. 10:19-21), appealingly (Prov. 15:26), appropriately (Prov. 25:11), and with restraint (Prov. 17:27-28). Also, as Jesus taught, we must fill our hearts and the hearts of our students with good things – the Bible, great literature, true history – for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:33-35). Regarding our study of the ancient pagan writers on rhetoric: We neither reject, nor receive, but rather redeem their teachings, “plundering the Egyptians” for the glory of God and the advance of His Kingdom.

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