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Classical Christian Movement

Why Can’t They All Be Rhetoric Students?

By November 1, 2010January 30th, 2023No Comments

I am starting to feel sorry for some of the younger students in classical schools. They sit in rows, laboring through stacks of information, occasionally standing to chant or recite in chorus. They are not unhappy, but the big kids get to discuss, disagree, to show off what they are learning—they are rhetoric students. But why can’t the little ones start to learn what it takes to be taken seriously by others, to impact someone else, to impress what they know on someone their own age? In short, why can’t they all be rhetoric students?

Any consideration of teaching rhetoric to anyone can begin with the classical canons. Organized by Ciceronian era orators, the five canons comprise the essential rhetorical skills that are taught, in sequence, to formal rhetoric students.

1. Discovery—the research into and the formulation of arguments that might be used to support a thesis

2. Arrangement—the organization of arguments for greatest effect, including the anticipation of responses (refutations) against the thesis

3. Style—composition, including the basic components of the persuasive essay or speech

4. Memory—in classical times, speeches were always memorized (often with amazing speed)

5. Presentation—the basic elements of oratory, including poise, voice strength, diction, intonation, gesture, etc.
When we teach high school and college students, we ordinarily take these in their traditional sequence. For most students, the first three canons—discovery, arrangement, and style— will constitute the majority of a course. Modern rhetoric texts such as Corbe and Connors (Oxford University Press) and Crider (Intercollegiate Studies Institute) typically reccommend that onehalf to two-thirds of the emphasis be placed on research and the formulation of arguments. Of course, this is the element that requires the greatest amount of academic skill and training. It would be largely inappropriate to emphasize these skill areas with first graders!

So, what can we do to introduce younger students to the study and practice of rhetoric? The traditional route has been to employ the progymnasmata, an ancient series of recitation and composition exercises, creatively revived by several contemporary authors and publishers. These exercises are certainly useful and historically were designed for use with students as soon as they could read, if not before. The basic goal is to train students in the habits of effective writing through imitation and the practice of structured forms. The “progym” is a developmentally appropriate way to introduce students to the rudimentary writing skills required in effective rhetoric.

But there’s more we can do with these canons that will serve to support a whole host of other academic goals for our littlest students. If we invert the canons, reversing the sequence by which we introduce the skills, we might actually be able to start training five and six-year-old rhetoricians in earnest.

Presentation (pronuntatio in Latin) is the ability to stand before someone and to say something understandably and attractively, even entertainingly. We have all heard somewhere that most people’s number one fear is public speaking. It makes perfect sense that this is true, since very few of us were taught at a young age to do it, regularly and with formal guidelines. Imagine the difference in the majority of our students’ abilities to converse, present, or debate if they had spent their first three or four years in school standing before classmates on a weekly basis to recite poetry or to give short speeches.

I can anticipate the objection here that it wouldn’t be fair to shy children or those with speech difficulties to put them on public display so often. It is precisely those children, however, who, if  given the chance to learn a formal manner of public speaking, would benefit the most! Not to mention the gregarious kids who would learn how to respect an audience and resist the temptation to draw attention to themselves with silliness.

In classical schools, there isn’t a recovery of traditional learning more important than the emphasis on memory. In Wisdom and Eloquence, Robert Littlejohn and I expand substantially on the need for students to remember information and skills. Just as important, however, we stress the need to teach students how to remember things.

The fourth rhetorical canon (second in our inverted sequence) is memory. I observe that in most classical schools with which I am familiar, things are memorized primarily to be recounted in writing. This is certainly more effcient than sixteen weekly recitations, and it may be appropriate in many situations. But doesn’t it seem that we could give students more opportunities to recall what they remember orally, following the guidelines established under a rubric of “presentation,” as above?

If the goal of a classical education based in the trivium is to produce skilled rhetoricians, the earlier a start we get, the better. And the more effectively we help our students to master the classical canons, the more effective their rhetoric will eventually be.

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