Blog 9: Rhetoric as classical education

Blog 9: Rhetoric as classical education

One of the most intriguing things I have learned from studying rhetoric is its influence on our education systems. We seldom reflect on histories that lead to the development of current educational ideologies, structures, and approaches. Through rhetoric, we can get a glimpse of how and why certain disciplines endured while others were replaced by new disciplines in the passage of time.

As a historian, Richard Toye opens his book with a discussion of typical public assumption of rhetoric, but he quickly moves into discussing (in Chapter 1) how rhetoric underlies the founding of a liberal education system in the classical Greek and then Roman eras.

In the period after Aristotle’s death, rhetorical study became an increasingly essential part of upper class young men’s education. Their studies would include the progymnasmata–a series of basic rhetorical exercises–as well more advanced forms of practice and explorations of theory. (p.15)

Toye shows how rhetoric went dimmed in the Dark Ages and was revived in the Renaissance as one of the three parts in a “Trivium” curriculum (the other two parts were grammar and logic). Came Enlightenment and Revolution periods, rhetoric was classified as classical learning and “was at the centre of the humanist education” (p.23). Enlightenment shaped “the way that rhetoric was delivered and received” (p.24).

The next big turn in rhetorical education did not come until the 18th century, when the printing press popularized mass literacy, and mass media became a focus for rhetoricians.

Today, we associate rhetoric mainly to political speeches and public policies (rightfully given the origin of rhetoric in demagogy). However, like the medieval times, we have lost focus of its uses and purposes since the majority only thinks of rhetoric as flattery or pandering to specific audiences.

At many times and in many places, rhetoric has been seen as a complete system of education, sufficient to prepare rulers for the task of governing–it has also been highly controversial, seen by some as a technique by which the unscrupulous can deceive the masses. (p.31)

As scholars we should investigate how rhetoric fits in our everyday lives, and how might we go about leveraging on the classical knowledge that has guided humanity through civilizations. For discussion, I pose these questions:

  • Why should we bother to study rhetoric today, anyway?
  • What are some instances of rhetoric you see in your everyday life? What makes them stand out to you?
  • Toye says, “Rhetoric cannot be conceived purely in terms of text and language, separate from the technical means by which it is conveyed to listeners and readers” (p.4). How have these “technical means” evolved over the past few decades, and what impacts did/do they have on the ways we persuade others?

Toye, Richard (2013). Rhetoric: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. [Introduction & Chapter 1]


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