Knowledge that Comes Out the Fingertips

Last week, we began a look at ACA's upper school program in grades 7-12, specifically focusing on themes and features via its curriculum. In future weeks, we'll take a look at college preparedness, emotional and developmental features of upper school students, homework loads, and sports and extracurriculars.

Today, I'd like to focus on what the rhetoric stage is within upper school, and what it is not. Most uses of the word "rhetoric" today mean the opposite of what we're after -- today, rhetoric means verbal fluff, smoke, deception. But classical use revives the full historical meaning of the word: honest persuasion in the pursuit of truth.

In this stage of upper school, students learn how to make what they say appealing. This aligns with their maturing developmental phase, which desires respect, recognition, and a clear identity as budding adults. Students are interested in making people believe them -- their friends, mentors, parents, or college admissions officers. This is a phase, but we want them to carry its outlook permanently, like God.  "The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times" (Ps. 12:6).

The rhetoric stage is the capstone of the trivium.  It is the telos of all prior years of study since preschool, the goal, the crown and glory of classical education.  Until this stage is reached, the grammar and logic stages are incomplete preparation -- valuable in their own right, but weakened and compromised without unification.  As a goal, rhetoric is a queen with her crown, the picture of unity, strength, and power.

But this is not just an impractical philosophical beauty. Upper school students still need to get into good colleges for God's glory. So the rhetoric stage is knowledge "coming out the fingertips" in terms of real hard work in math and science, Latin and public speaking, history and theology, art and music, writing and rhetoric. The beauty of the rhetoric stage is a practical beauty.

Further, rhetoric fixes all knowledge to the standard of God's beauty, and it speaks like he speaks.  It writes like he writes, creates like he creates, and loves like he loves. Unless that universal model of beauty is learned, what might happen to knowledge?

Many things, from the silly to the tragic. Without beauty, brilliantly-educated minds give soporific speeches via monotone PowerPoint.  Those that conceived the great cathedrals are gone, and "the architecture of servitude and boredom" (as Russell Kirk once said) produce industrial slums.  The "suicide art" of Jackson Pollock and the "Piss Christ" of Andres Serrano are hailed as masterpieces.  The ruling elite see the stunning magic of the infant human form as inventory to be chopped up and sold to the highest bidder.  And if there is no beauty, no standard for loveliness, who are we to object?  Let our children use their classically-educated minds to find their own truth.

But the earth is full of God's glory, and it is crying unending praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  What is all our knowledge and logic without the living Word?  What is beauty without the glory of Christ?  What is love without incarnate Love?  We lay all our learning at his feet -- from grammar to logic to rhetoric and beyond -- in recognition that he is the author and finisher of all.