Dispatches from the Front: Logic & Rhetoric

You’ve likely noticed a band of good-natured young men and women roaming the ACA halls, perhaps whispering about the ridiculous anger-fueled antics of the characters in the 13th-century epic Norse poem The Saga of the Volsungs or discussing the relationship between velocity and acceleration in physics. Sometimes they’re dancing in cross-country uniforms (see ACA’s Instagram feed for a recent example), and other times, they’re in art class, whipping up clay pyramids inspired by the ancient Egyptians. 

Meet our Logic and Rhetoric students, who are building on the rich knowledge they scooped up in the Grammar phase of their education and are now beginning to play with and explore it, learn how to examine it critically, and then articulate beautiful and compelling and true conclusions from it. 

In the Logic phase of the Trivium, students enter a phase that aligns with a development shift in their lives: Instead of merely accepting what we—their parents and teachers—tell them, they begin to ask probing questions. They have capacity for abstract thought. They’re keen on cause and effect, and they are ready and able to apply a logical framework to their learning: Composition isn’t merely descriptive anymore; it supports a thesis. Reading texts involves analysis, not just information-gathering. Science study means learning the scientific method and learning to apply it rigorously; the study of history moves from knowing the facts and narratives of the human story to asking why Muhammad rose up as the founder of Islam or why the Berlin Wall fell. 

This Logic phase at ACA stretches from 7th into 9th grade, which is kind of an overlap year on the Logic-Rhetoric continuum. Rhetoric is what I think of as “the fruit”—the good stuff. It’s all good stuff, of course, but this is the place where students marry the cultivation of knowledge with the rules of logic and learn to express themselves in elegant, compelling, clear language. Students get to wrestle with big ideas because now they’re equipped to do so: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be in relationship with God? How, then, ought we to live? 

Knowing these stages—but not yet having a child in one of them—I was eager to chat with our ACA Logic and Rhetoric students. They did not disappoint. 

I heard a good bit about Logic class, in which students learn to use truth tables, an interdisciplinary tool used in computer science, math, and philosophy that allows a student to evaluate the veracity of a statement or series of statements. “We’re into really deep questions, like, ‘If God is all-powerful, why does evil exist?’” ninth-grader Hays said. “The ability to look at that statement objectively is pretty awesome.” His classmate Chandler is excited that logic will prepare him for his career: “I want to get a computer-science degree and move into programming, which has a lot of logic in it, so this puts me ahead of the game,” he told me. “I’ll be able to think through my programming steps well.” 

Another classmate, Isabel, connected those big-idea questions with some of the students’ discussions in class: “Our classes are very safe and open environments for lots of opinions and exploring significant questions.” Like what? I asked. “Like…is there a difference between the holiness we can attain as human beings set apart by God and divine holiness?” (I had to ask her to repeat herself.) She explained that Saint Augustine has a lot to say on this topic, and after some reading and discussing, she’s reached a conclusion: “I think humans—through God’s grace and by following God’s example—can achieve the holiness that means ‘to be set apart,’ but divine holiness is only God’s because He’s so far above us.” She made me want to be an ACA student. 

I heard from many students that they feel a sense of freedom in exploring ideas. Seventh-grader Brayden praised the “deep discussions” that the Logic phase employs, and the ways his teachers seem to know to draw out their students. “It’s fun to get to connect to my teachers and classmates in that way, to say what I think and hear what others think,” he said. His classmate Taiden agrees: “We just finished Till We Have Faces; it’s a book by C.S. Lewis. Last year, we would have just talked about what happened in the book. Now, we’re talking more about characters’ agendas and motivations.” (I wondered then if the upper-schoolers were on a mission to make me jealous.)

I’d join them in a heartbeat, if I could, and I suspect they’d welcome me in. Every single student I interviewed mentioned their peers. 9th-grader Hope called them “a family.” 11th-grader Hannah said the best part of being back at school is “getting back into the community because I miss them over the summer.” Hays said they share “an excitement about being together,” and Isabel summed it up best: “If feels like when I’m gone from school, I’m gone from my family.”

Rigor and friendship, logic and theology, curiosity and occasional goofiness, eloquence and mistakes and learning—it’s all here. I left these chats with our upper-school students with a profound sense of excitement for my own children’s educational path. As Hannah reminded me: “You should remind the younger students that it just gets better every year.” By God’s grace, indeed and amen. 

Hilary Oswald is an ACA mom, freelance journalist, and contributing editor at 5280 Magazine.