Practical Tips for Teaching Rhetoric

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These pages and links constitute a primer on how to teach rhetoric and dialectic, in tandem, to cultivate wisdom and eloquence!

Here is your step-by-step overview, with links designed to enhance your grasp of concepts and strategies.

As always, if you have any questions, please drop me a line.

Please begin by watching this presentation:

“What is Classical Lutheran Education and Why does it Matter?”

THEN read this little overview:

“Cultivating Wisdom and Eloquence”

Next, go to and read “Luther on Educationand get a copy of Rev. Joel Brondos’ No Greater Treasure.  All Christians can benefit from reading Luther on education, but Lutheran Classical educators, especially, need to understand the premium placed on classical liberal arts learning by our Reformation forebears.

Now that you have a general grasp of the AIM of teaching in tandem rhetoric and dialectic (namely, to cultivate wisdom and eloquence,) you are ready to tackle individual courses . . .

In the Public Speaking course, I focus on the fundamentals of eloquence; the art of composing speeches (as opposed to merely imparting techniques for “effective communication”). What one considers “fundamental” is, of course, open to interpretation, I tell them, and then demonstrate why a rhetorical approach to the art of speech making, in the classical liberal arts vein, teaches the true fundamentals and elevates the enterprise.

I orient students to the liberal arts approach by pointing out that most people already know about eye contact, gestures, volume, rate, pitch, etc., and that I could cover those topics in about a half-hour. So, what are we going to discuss for the rest of the semester? I propose studying the art of rhetoric, from a traditional liberal arts perspective. I then pose a question: Why are you at a university? If you just want a good job that pays well, you could spend a lot less time and money going to a tech school and learning a trade. What do you get at a university that you don’t get elsewhere? “A liberal arts education” (hopefully!). (See John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University.)

The Greeks had three divisions of education:

Industrial Arts — Productive Arts — Liberal Arts

The first two are where slaves learned to use and maintain tools and to make things. The third branch of education involved the knowledge apropos of a free person (hence, “liberal”). This was education for citizens, in which they learned to be good judges, make good laws, exercise leadership, and, generally, be at home in the realm of ideas. They were equipped to exercise their freedom, and it was felt that, in exercising freedom, they would achieve excellence. For the Greeks, excellence went something like this: Every creature has something it does uniquely and better than any other creature. So, the excellence of the cheetah is its speed, and it realizes its excellence in running. They identified an excellence for each creature: the excellence of the ant is its organization, the excellence of the elephant is its size, and so on. What do you suppose the excellence of the “rational animal” would be? Right! To think, to reason, to analyze and to argue. In short, to be at home in the realm of ideas. I then transition to the middle ages and teach them what I picked up, over 20 years ago, by reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ “The Lost Tools of Learning.”

7 Classical Liberal Arts

/           \

Trivium     Quadrivium
Grammar       Astronomy
Dialectic       Arithmetic
Rhetoric       Geometry

I point out that the trivium were taught as tools, the quadrivium were subjects. The trivium helped form, discipline and order the mind; to cultivate the intellectual virtues that equipped students to be at home in the realm of ideas, to both learn and discuss them. I also spell out for students how the question at the heart of liberal education is, “What knowledge must we have in order to be fully human?” (see Wayne Booth’s “Is There Any Knowledge That a Man Must Have?”). So, the aim of liberal education is human excellence.

I then define rhetoric for them, explain how rhetoric was, in its golden age, considered the “most humane of the humanities” and then break it down into its constituent parts and explain to them how this theory will provide a framework for the entire course and will inform their practices. There is also a good bit of instruction in fundamentals of logic (syllogisms, dialectic and common material fallacies, to be precise) on the assumption that, if they are intellectually engaged, when they speak they’ll have something of substance to say. In other words, thought is foundational, or fundamental, to speech. That’s how I begin Public Speaking class.

Click here for more

Now Aristotle begins his treatise on rhetoric by noting that rhetoric is a counterpart of both dialectic and ethics. My Argumentation & Debate course is an in-depth treatment of the relationship of logic and rhetoric. Logic aims to equip the student to engage in practical argumentation by examining and discussing patterns of reasoning, fields of argument, standards of evidence, classical rhetorical concepts and contemporary controversies. The course begins with a good bit of instruction in fundamentals of logic, because thought is fundamental to argument. This “Bootcamp of the Mind” constitutes a refresher course for my Rhetoric students, but it is all condensed into the first four weeks of class (whereas the concepts are dispensed, in 110, on an as-needed basis, at strategic points in the semester.)

“Bootcamp of the Mind” concludes with a philosophical speech (which draws upon the Great Books of the Western World) and a graduation ceremony (complete with certificates!) The course is then divided, along lines suggested in Aristotle’s Rhetorica, into three units, all designed to feature one aspect of arguing cases (a rhetorical approach to argumentation is a case-centered, practical approach): arguing a case in court of law, defending one’s judgment in a moral dilemma, and arguing one’s case in a policy controversy.

The forensic unit concludes with an argumentation analysis of a Supreme Court opinion. The unit on moral argumentation concludes with an opinion, written as a medical ethics consultant, in which the student must render and defend a judgment in a moral dilemma in clinical medicine. The course concludes with a debate involving a controversial policy proposition. Students must research both sides of the question. They flip for sides, then, on the second day, argue the opposite side of the question. Building a powerful case is not a matter of logic alone, but of stylistic excellence also. [Click here for more]

My approach to Advanced Public Speaking is also classical. Students enjoy it very much. The core of the course is an exercise in “imitatio,” a pedagogical scheme developed in the Roman era and practiced widely in medieval times. The idea is to expose students to great oratory, have them study it, then imitate it. As they develop a feel for stylistic excellence, they are encouraged to compose original works. This graduated approach is very effective. Your advanced student can read classical oratory in the original languages.

The course begins with an overview of rhetoric in the liberal arts, followed by focused study in elements of style. There are speaking assignments designed to break the ice, but real application of classical concepts begins with a memorized speech. Students select a speech of interest from days of yore. They select a portion of it that can be performed in 6 minutes. Next comes an “essentializing exercise,” in which students identify the essential message of the speech. They then do an imitatio speech in which they apply that theme to a contemporary situation. In that speech they are to emulate the style of the person whose speech they chose to memorize. Finally, they are invited to do a “student’s choice” speech, that demonstrates mastery of course content. They learn a great deal about how to move an audience (pathos) and, specifically, how to deploy figures of speech masterfully. [Click here for more]

Finally, my Oral Interpretation course deepens the student’s appreciation for the canons of great literature. Learning to interpret and perform great literature helps the student cultivate aesthetic sensibilities and verbal acuity. This course is based less on classical curricula than the others, but it covers an important facet of the development of rhetorical skills and it’s lots of fun! [Click here for more]

What can a 14 year old student in a classical school possibly learn from a series of college courses based on rhetoric? Remember, in the Middle Ages, the trivium would have been completed by age 16. Taken together these four courses constitute an integrated approach to the study and practice of rhetoric, which cultivates practical wisdom and eloquence. In the process of developing a conceptual understanding of the art of rhetoric (mastering its tools) and then practicing rhetoric as an art, the student will learn to reason with precision, spot faulty logic, exercise insight and forethought in deliberations and use words to paint vivid images. To instruct, persuade and delight audiences. They can do it! . . . they’ll love it.

FOR THE MORE PHILOSOPHICALLY INCLINED, here are additional [college-level] readings!