Classical Education: The Rhetoric Stage (reprise) - SLO Classical Academy
Inquire Visit Donate
San Luis Obispo Classical Academy San Luis Obispo Classical Academy

Welcome to Down Home, San Luis Obispo Classical Academy’s blog! We are a classical school offering several options to make our education work for families with infants through high schoolers. Our signature hybrid program, which is part-time classroom and part-time home instruction, provides an engaging education for preschool through middle school (with full time options available). We also have a university model high school. This blog is meant to support and encourage on the home front because, in so many ways, the heart of what happens at SLO Classical Academy happens down home.

Semper discentes—always learning together.
Subscribe to Down Home:

blog sponsors

Classical Education: The Rhetoric Stage (reprise)

Did you catch our SLOCA Rhythms video in the Bear Necessities last week? Over the next couple of weeks we will be exploring our “Classical Education (with a twist)”, with a reprise from a series we have featured on Down Home in 2016. Rewritten to reflect our school in 2022, we hope you find it useful.

Our educational model at SLOCA is “Classical Education (with a twist).” While there is certainly a wealth of information about classical education to be found online (including our website), and excellent books have been written on the subject, today we begin a blog series about the different stages of classical education at SLOCA. Written by our talented and dedicated teachers, each with a different voice, these posts are resources to help you better understand each stage of our classical model.

While the content will be similar to what you might find in the Field Guides for each level, here we will focus on the following four stages: the Pre-Grammar stage (our Little Wonders), the Grammar Stage (grades 1-4), the Logic Stage (grades 5-8) and the Rhetoric Stage (grades 9-12).

Today we begin with the Rhetoric Stage and will work backward from there in the coming weeks. This will give you the “big picture” first – what the ultimate goal of Classical Education looks like, and what the other stages are working toward. So let’s hear from our high school English teacher, Paul McCullough, all about the Rhetoric Stage at SLOCA:

“Life is the great teacher.” – James Joyce, Ulysses

Living the Questions

In the Rhetoric Stage, at the high school level, students encounter the lasting, life-shaping questions posed by great texts and thinkers of many times and places—questions whose answers each of us must work out for ourselves on our way to lives of personal maturity and social responsibility. Who am I? What do I hope for and believe? What do I owe my neighbors, my family? What, finally, is worth a life?

These are questions that Google cannot answer. They “introduce us to ourselves,” in Paul Tillich’s phrase. Without these Rhetoric Stage questions, even our most stunning intellectual and technological achievements turn out to be nothing more than “improved means to an unimproved end,” to quote the clairvoyantly cranky Henry David Thoreau.

Thus, a classical education culminates in Rhetoric Stage inquiry. If the Grammar Stage explores the Who, What, Where, When? of a subject, and the Logic Stage the Why?, then the Rhetoric Stage focuses on questions of How and To What End? It aims at applied knowledge, self-understanding, virtue, and, finally, that rare and elusive quality: wisdom.

Sometimes the most profound questions we ask in the Rhetoric Stage turn out to be the simplest:

How do I know what I think?

And how do I learn how to say what I think?

At first glance, such queries may seem trivial or obvious. Of course I know what I think!

But the fact is that we usually don’t know what we think until someone asks us. Taking our cues from Socrates, classical educators understand that thinking is often the result of a question that is posed, an obstacle that arises, or a challenge that must be met. This is why teachers in the wisdom traditions—from Socrates to the Talmudic rabbis and Taoist masters—have always taught in an interrogative mode. Until someone requires us to articulate our thoughts, our thoughts think us, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, rather than the other way around.

A question, then, is an invitation to a greater freedom. Freedom from what? From second-hand beliefs, from mere opinion. Socrates’ term for this was doxa—“the non-thought of received ideas” as my former Cal Poly professor Robert Inchausti put it with such deadpan precision. In the Rhetoric Stage we ask students to formulate not just the answers, but their answers.

Let’s be real, though. We’ve all met people who love to question “society” in the laziest and most self-serving ways. Cheap skepticism can be a shortcut to unearned profundity. (Dear Reader, we literature majors are anything but exempt from this!) How many of us are humble and rigorous enough to scrutinize their own ideologies, motives, and entrenched preferences in the same clear light of day?

It takes courage to do this, and character. To place our trust not in ourselves but in the truth. To understand how often we labor under flawed or incomplete premises, seeing mainly what we want to see, forgetting that laughter, joy, irony, play, and perspective are every bit as constitutive of things as our Big Ideas (probably more so). Self-seriousness and self-deception run astonishingly deep, not least among the highly credentialed classes. But this performative skepticism cuts us off from our native ground of wonder, from which something like wisdom might someday flower. Therefore, we must remain open to a truth that moves beyond suspicion, a beauty beneath outward appearances, and a virtue whose keener edge cuts through the fluff of mere niceness. The Rhetoric Stage cuts in both directions: we shape our questions, and our questions shape us.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke memorably bade us to “live the questions.” There is no sense in giving students answers to questions they have not yet begun to ask for themselves. Around ages 14-18, the Rhetoric Stage questions come alive for many students. We cannot pursue them alone. We need others—texts, teachers, time, friends, mentors, Emerson’s “brilliant antagonists”—to patiently attend us on this journey. In this way, classical education aims at producing people of character with truth-seeking intellects and receptive hearts, willing to grow together toward goodness in and through the common good of community.


The Rhetoric Stage in Practice

While the Rhetoric Stage represents the capstone of classical education, the ideal we strive for, Rhetoric students never really pass “beyond” the Grammar and Logic stages. C.S. Lewis’s axiom still holds: “The higher does not stand without the lower.”

However, here are some approaches that make SLOCA High School’s program distinctive at the Rhetoric Stage.

  • Flexibility and Specificity. Older students are allowed to ease up in some disciplines (say, foreign languages) in order to concentrate in others (say, math), according to their developing interests and strengths.
  • Open-Ended Thinking. Long-term assignments (including a capstone Senior Project) will have a more open structure, allowing students to practice the fundamentals of academic inquiry—the art of asking and answering meaningful questions.
  • The Unity of Knowledge. Students are encouraged to connect topics they are studying across the curriculum, participating in the great conversation of Western thought.
  • Great Books. Taking the great books as our models of rhetoric in action, students will study primary sources whenever practical, attending to not only what is being said, but how it is said, and to whom. Great books invite us to become great readers.
  • Metadiscourse/Metacognition. Students will practice self-reflection, developing a critical awareness of their own thought processes and communication strategies.
  • Study of First Principles. Students will attend to the fundamentals that define each subject as such and that will allow them to delve deeper into a subject on their own terms.
  • Character Formation. Students will have opportunities to reflect on and develop their personal character, conceived in an Aristotelian sense as the habits and dispositions of right action that lead to full human flourishing.
  • The Socratic Method. Students will not passively consume the ideas of others, but actively engage with them, learning to articulate their own thoughts from a posture of wonder, receptivity, and humility, taking as their model Socrates’ knowledge that begins by knowing his own ignorance.
Romeo and Juliet, attributed to Benjamin West and studio. Wikimedia commons

For example, a student in the Grammar Stage (1st-4th grade) might be introduced to the plot and characters of Romeo and Juliet. They might then make costumes and stage a scene (perhaps the famous balcony scene), as well as memorize facts and dates about Shakespeare and his Elizabethan era.

In the Logic Stage (5th-8th grade), a student will go further, perhaps studying the genre conventions of comedy, tragedy, and romance, and exploring the conflict between romantic love and familial duty in the play. They will acquire the basic skills of Socratic seminar: speaking and listening generously to others.

A Rhetoric Stage student (9th-12th grade) will be asked to draw on all this background knowledge to formulate their own original thoughts about, say, the clash between feudal family structures and emerging ideals of Renaissance humanism, or about Shakespeare’s defiance of Aristotelian Unities of Plot. They might play around with “adding” a speech of their own to the play, written in iambic pentameter, further developing a character or theme that intrigues them. They will become comfortable inquiring into the play Socratically, carrying on a constructive conversation about it without the teacher’s overt guidance.

Above all, though, students in the Rhetoric Stage will attend to the how of Shakespeare’s literary language—not just what is said, but how it is said—how language brings the story to life for its readers in the form of poetic knowledge.


Making Reality Available

Perhaps this is the Rhetoric Stage’s most salient feature: a focus on language as a medium of thought. By “language,” we don’t mean strictly verbal languages. Math is a language, and so is music—as anyone knows who has been moved by it. Color, line, and shape in the hands of a skilled visual artist become a language. Chemistry and physics, with their complex systems of signs and symbols, unfold the grammar of material reality, making the world newly intelligible to our minds. Classical education’s fundamental insight is that every subject has a grammar, a syntax, a semantics, a morphology. We gain fluency in these by stages, with practice and with play.

The ancients, however, held the study of verbal languages in especially high reverence, and we would do well to understand why. When Socrates remarks that “To speak badly… does some harm to the soul” (Plato, Phaedrus 115e), he is not being pedantic or admonishing us to take a course in ancient Greek. Socrates’ point here is that language expands our access to the structure of reality—the classical logos, the way things are. If the work of words is to connect the inner and outer worlds, then the strength of our connection to reality depends, substantially, upon the quality of our language.

Put another way, words do not simply express what’s going on inside us: they enrich and inform what’s going on inside us. Words speak us into being. They fashion our inner realities, the ones that truly matter. I invoke Socrates above as an antidote to a modern myth about language: that the primary purpose of words is to move thoughts from one brain to another, or from the brain to the page, like a bit of data transferred between hard drives. But in reality, no “data” is “there” (where?!) to transfer until we find the words that form the thoughts—often in response to a question, an impasse, an aporia.

Other times, the words find us. This is what poetry does: we don’t so much grasp a great poem as feel ourselves grasped by it. To encounter Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 is not just to receive a new bit of data, fourteen lines neatly bundled in poetic form. It is not just the poem we receive, but, somehow, a whole world along with it. Reality becomes transfigured by its light. Even familiar things now look quite different, more themselves, when we look up from the page. The great rhetorical critic R.P. Blackmur put it this way: “Poetry adds to our stock of available reality.”

The Rhetoric Stage aims at an essentially poetic way of thinking and being in the world. Students are challenged to put their ideas into words—not so that they can express the static thoughts they already have (where’s the fun in that?) but so that they can have better thoughts, build truer selves, with more of reality made available to them through their greater fluency with the grammar and logic of various languages and disciplines. This is what we mean when we say that classical education teaches students not just what to think, how to think—to think with precision and purpose.

These may sound like pedagogical clichés. But as the late David Foster Wallace liked to remind his students, clichés often contain great and terrible truths. “All there is to thinking,” Norman Maclean wrote in A River Runs Through It, “is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.” I know exactly what he means. We all “learn to think” eventually. Will we learn well, or learn poorly? Sooner or later? Will we think poetically and creatively, or will we think in dead metaphors and cultural clichés?

The novelist Marilynne Robinson frames her classical schooling in this way:

“We were encouraged to create for ourselves minds we would want to live with. I had teachers articulate that to me. ‘You have to live with your mind your whole life.’ You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with. Nobody has ever said anything more valuable to me.”

This, to me, sums up the whole adventure—and the stakes—of the Rhetoric Stage.


The Return of Fair-Mindedness

For these reasons, the Rhetoric Stage also includes basic instruction in classical rhetoric. Rhetoric today is largely a pejorative term, no doubt. “Mere rhetoric” and “empty rhetoric” may as well be permanent prefixes at this point. (Kenneth Burke’s “rhetrickery” never quite caught on—too clever by half, as usual.) We’re all familiar with rhetoric in this sense: a verbal smokescreen of unnecessarily complicated (or unnecessarily simplistic) language intended to mislead an audience—proof that the speaker has a low regard for truth, or perhaps has ulterior motives (money, power, prestige) in seeking to persuade us.

“…color, line, and shape in the hands of a skilled visual artist become a language.” {Six Persimmons by Mu-ch’i / Public Domain}

Yet the classical tradition conceives of rhetoric in a more constructive light. Rhetoricians like Aristotle, Isocrates, and Augustine of Hippo knew that written and verbal discourse are essential tools for grasping truth and building consensus around it. Words are powerful allies in the search for wisdom, justice, order, and community.

Granted: words can also be enemies, if we’re not careful. Words can illuminate the truth, or obscure it. But the classically trained rhetorician can see the difference between gold and that which merely glitters, and can help others see it too.

Classical rhetoric aims above all at the art of fair-mindedness. That is to say, the classically trained rhetor can deploy ethos, pathos, and logos to argue persuasively any side of an issue in any given situation—not out of a relativistic stance, as the sophists, who specialized in clever but misleading arguments, but with the noble aim of helping others grasp what is really motivating a particular belief or truth claim. If we want to make clear-eyed, well-informed decisions in both public and private life, we need to construe our opponents’ arguments in the fairest possible light. Then we are free to be more generous in our interpretations of those who might reasonably disagree with us, correcting them with reasons instead of combating them with bad-faith insults (or weapons).

Fair-minded discourse, as Aristotle recognized, is the lifeblood of a democratic polis. It builds a common life around public consensus. One major step toward repairing a broken civilization would be to repair its broken rhetoric.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, classical rhetoric helps us marshal what philosophers call the perlocutionary force of language. That is, some words actually do things in the world; they have visible, tangible effects on our lives. The medieval humanist Petrarch once mused: “Aristotle teaches what virtue is, I do not deny that; but his lessons lack words that sting and set afire and urge toward love of virtue.” (It’s true: Aristotle’s writings are dry and measured, perhaps to a fault.) Rhetorical skill—not just what is said, but how—can make all the difference between hearing and understanding, between knowing something in our bones and knowing it for the test. At the most crucial moments in our lives, it is the way things are said that matters most. “Eloquence,” Lyman Beecher once preached “is logic on fire.”


To What End?

Semper discentes, we say at SLOCA: always learning. We really understand very little about other people, other cultures, until we know how and to what ends they have labored and loved. The tools of classical learning help us ask these crucial questions. They give us improved means to improve life’s ends, from the inside out, starting with our own minds and comprehending the common good we share with one another.

Life is the only teacher—Ulysses again—from whom we never stop learning. The Rhetoric Stage can teach us how—and maybe even to what end.

SLO Classical Academy is not affiliated with any of the above mentioned websites, businesses, organizations, or individuals.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *