Quintilian defines rhetoric as the art of a good man speaking well. Before getting into that, we need to address a problem that sometimes arises with bookish sorts. As we do this we also have to deal with the problem of doing this in our postmodern age, which is an age of sophistry, illusion, and posing for the camera. Think of it as teaching rhetoric in the age of the selfie.
The first issue has to do with the difference between learning about it, and learning how to do it. Studying rhetoric texts is not the same thing as being able to speak. Studying ancient rhetoric texts is not the same thing as learning how to speak. Being able to outline the Ad Herennium is not the same thing as being able to speak. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with any of these things considered in themselves, but the point of learning how to speak is to be able to speak.
Rhetoric means speaking. Part of the preliminaries would of course involve studying other people speaking, but the central point is to learn how to speak yourself. This means every student, regularly. At NSA, the rhetoric class is taught freshman year, and we have about fifty students in an entering class on average. The structure of NSA is that for our classes we have a lecture early in the week, for an hour or two, the students have assigned readings to complete during the week, usually a book, and then recitations later in the week. In recitations, the class is broken up into smaller sections, and each section meets with the professor to ask questions, be asked questions, to debate and discuss. Those are the recitations. But in rhetoric, recitations are replaced by declamation. Every week, each student presents something. It is only for a few minutes apiece, but every student speaks every week. This is a great help, obviously, with learning how to deal with the jitters, but it is also a wonderful way for the entering class to get to know one another, and is one of the reasons the classes grow as close as they do.
The second preliminary thing to deal with is postmodernism, which is nothing but sophistry in modern guise. And when I say modern guise I am not unaware of what I have just done. Modernity has always been relativistic in principle, and postmodernism has helped us identify the fact that secularism has always been a cul de sac. But you don’t call it post-leprosy just because another finger fell off.
The textbook we use for the NSA class is The Rhetoric Companion, written by me and by Nate Wilson—both of us have taught this course for various stints—and the textbook begins by considering what Paul meant in his full-throated attack on rhetoric (1 Cor. 1:18-25).
And John Piper does the same thing in the Introduction of his recent book, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully. Do not teach rhetoric to your students unless and until you (and they) understand the object of Paul’s scorn in that passage. He is attacking the core tenets of the sophists, and Corinth was teeming with them. The sophists would speak for a fee, and did not care for our quaint notions of objective or absolute truth. One of the great characteristics was their boasting, and which Paul make a particular target. He is not targeting the effective use of language, because in this section Paul is using language very effectively. He is not targeting Quintilian’s definition of rhetoric as being “a good man speaking well.” He is targeting the sophistic approach, which is that of a clever but rootless man speaking to unanchored applause.
I mentioned postmodernism earlier, and this is key. Postmodern assumptions have seeped into everything, including the hearts and minds of many of your students. I say this because at NSA we have to deal with this routinely, constantly. I can tell you that the evangelical church, the Reformed church, the classical and Christian school movement, and all our other friends and relations, are not coming through this relativistic era unscathed. We are taking casualties. If we were a ship, we would be taking on water.
The answer, as we can easily say, but must be able to see, is Christ. And in order to be able to see Christ in this era, we have to do what Paul did in his era. We have to learn a deep and abiding contempt of being cool.
So if we consider the rhetoric classes at Logos and New St. Andrews as positioned somewhere on the front lines of this business, let me tell you some war stories . . .
One time during declamation, one of my better students was giving her presentation to the class. I was sitting off the side in the front of the class, and she was addressing the class. According to her usual custom, she was prepared, pretty, poised, polished. I happened to glance down during the course of her talk and saw that the back hem of her skirt was shaking like an aspen in a stiff breeze. Some students look like they don’t need the practice, but they still do.
Nancy has taught rhetoric at Logos, and when the students present regularly you can shake a lot of things out. If students came up to the front and their first words were um, okay, or so, they had to go sit down. If, during the course of their talk, they said um or awesome, the class was trained to erupt into a chorus of oh, no! or the equivalent, and they would go sit down again. Practice really does deal with the jitters, and there is no way to do this except by doing it. Nancy had one Korean student who got rattled, and switched languages, back to Korean. Another student would break out into blotches when speaking, and it got better over time. Let’s do this thing together.
One of the rules that Nate has for rhetoric is his prohibition of English accents. An exception is made for our students from England, because we are just charitable that way, but for Americans the rule is laid down. We once had a bad experience with a student presentation at the weekly disputatio for the entire college, with an accent mangling the lady of shallllohttttt. Rhetoric is not pretending to be somebody else. Rhetoric is learning how to be a disciplined and honest version of yourself. You are after the inculcation of confidence and clarity.
One of the ways that standards slip in educational institutions is that we first develop tests that we think are comprehensive. These tests bury the teacher in the process of grading at stated intervals, and it is not long before tests that are much easier to grade start creeping in. These tests don’t tell you nearly as much, but we are now getting through the process with less burdensome requirements. In a related area, someone once described education as a process whereby information gets from the teacher’s outline into the student’s notebook without passing through the mind of either. So learn to grade on the fly. Give feedback immediately. Coach them in the moment, like the director of a play, or the conductor of an orchestra or choir. Don’t take a stack of papers up to Mt. Olympus in order to make inscrutable decisions signaled by indecipherable markings in red. In rhetoric especially, have the students speak routinely, and evaluate them as they go, and when the class period over all your grading is done already.
So learn to distinguish the kind of tests that tell you what you need to know, and the kind that are easy to grade. Take care that you are not making a teacher-friendly environment that helps students slide into some kind of a cozy zone.
When we start teaching our students rhetoric, really, it will be hard to keep it a secret. The authority will come from the truth of the substance of what they are saying, and the authority of their speaking will be related. The substance has the ring of truth, the authority of truth, and in fact it is so authoritative that it is exercising that authority over the way the speaker is approaching his lecture, or talk, or sermon. Christ is Lord of everything, including how we put our words together, and how we then write or say them.