rhetoric

Kings & Queens of Your Castle

"You are kings and queens of your castle!”

A few weeks ago during chapel, this is the charge I gave to upper school students. What did I mean exactly? I told them that they are in charge of their rooms at home and their lockers and supplies at school. When they demonstrate the ability to take care of their rooms and their school supplies, they are showing that they are capable of being responsible for what has been given to them. They should think of their rooms/lockers/backpacks as their kingdoms - this is what has been entrusted to them and they rule over their little kingdoms. Naturally, they can be good or bad kings/queens. They can either show dominion over the chaos and establish rule and order or they can let the chaos take over and be controlled by their mess. I encouraged them to be faithful in the little things in which they have been entrusted.  Someday, they might want to be responsible for more.  

At last week’s chapel (and the last US chapel of the semester), I compared the story of Herod’s anger at hearing of the birth of Jesus, and the downward path he took to commit an act of great evil, to how we can go down a similar path when we let our anger control us. Herod was “greatly troubled” when he heard the news out of Bethlehem. His agenda was being interrupted, and he came up with a plan to neutralize this threat. He tried to extract information from the wise men, and when that plan failed, he “became furious.”

Notice Herod’s progression of emotions: first he was troubled, then angry, and finally he resorted to violence and ordered the slaughter of children. Like Herod, we can easily find ourselves on the same path (without the capacity to order the murder of scores of children) when our plans are interrupted. Anger has the power to be so destructive that Jesus addresses it first in his Sermon on the Mount. Dallas Willard said that anger “is a feeling that seizes us in our body and immediately impels us toward interfering with, and possibly even harming, those who have thwarted our will and interfered with our life.” The first step in learning to control our anger is learning to be open to divine interruptions, which often come in the form of ordinary everyday annoyances. We should welcome God to interrupt and thwart our plans, and as a result we open ourselves up to experience his grace and love. Then, by God’s grace, we can release the anger we feel when we are interrupted by others.

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.

Memory, Argument, & Persuasion

We've recently been taking quick looks at a few principles that distinguish classical Christian education from other methodologies -- its hows and whysits respect for the past, and its balance between nature and technology.

Classical Christian education champions the use of memory, argument, and persuasion to undergird all subjects. Comprising the Trivium, you may know them as grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Yet memory, argument, and persuasion have fallen by the wayside in the 21st century. Other educational methodologies, not to mention real-world practice, replace them with Google, popular opinion, and various self-identities. Where once ideas and cultural practice were moored by a large body of personal knowledge, a moral paradigm for interpreting that knowledge, and a standards-based worldview for making that interpretation pleasing, now reality is defined only by the preferences of the individual, verified only by his feelings.

Memory (Grammar)
The book of Deuteronomy might carry a single theme: remember. Do not forget. Moses wrote the entire book, just before his death, as a means of reminding the Israelites of the knowledge of God, and of his gifts: "Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes" (Deut. 8:11). Classical Christian education encourages students in a similar way: learn the ways of God, of the way he made the world, and of the things he has given you. Remember, and do not forget. In a real way, this is why classical education emphasizes memorization, not simply as a utilitarian means of calling up facts when we don't have a smartphone, but as a way of writing the knowledge of God and his world on students' hearts. This kind of memorization creates thankfulness.

Argument (Logic)
"'Come, let us reason together,' says the Lord" (Is. 1:18), the Word from the beginning, the "Logic" made flesh (John 1:1) The nature of God is rational, his creation is orderly, and therefore classical Christian education seeks to mold students' minds to the mind of God. What are the rules of the world that we have been given? What are the rules of thought? What is God like? The answers becomes the standard for all truth, and for all discourse. Without it, the only coherent question becomes, "Who's to say?" Reality is ultimately rendered meaningless.

Persuasion (Rhetoric)
At the end of creation, "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). Within the first week of the created order, God made things, communicated them into existence, and persuaded himself that they were "very good." He did not simply form beings with mere functional capacity; he gave them beauty. In turn as created beings, we have a longing for everything lovely, and for the ultimate Loveliness of Christ. Therefore, classical Christian education trains students to take joy in their creations, to imbue their projects, essays, labs, and speeches with loveliness, reflecting the beauty of their creator.