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In view of present political tensions, there may never have been a more important time for American middle school, high school and college students to prepare for future leadership and participate in speech and debate training, including debate tournaments and debate camps. But what should be at the heart of this participation? I would suggest that the methodology of “Classical Rhetoric” deserves a close look.
For the 23 centuries preceding the birth of our country, there was a consensus in our civilization about what constituted good public speaking and good public speaking instruction. It goes by the term “Classical Rhetoric.” Our young republic embraced this consensus, as well. None other than Harvard College established the first Department of Classical Rhetoric in the land; the then US Senator and future 6th President of the United States John Quincy Adams thought it important enough to divide his time between politics and teaching, becoming the Department’s first Chairman. Other schools quickly followed Harvard’s lead.
What drove Adams and Harvard, in those days, was the belief that the teaching and learning of Classical Rhetoric was integral to the cultivating of responsible leadership. Indeed it had been understood throughout the West for several millennia that Classical Rhetoric is integral to common good leadership.
To do justice to the significance of Classical Rhetoric would take a great many words. A study of this famous technique would lead, I assert, to a number of pertinent observations. Here are four. First of all, Classical Rhetoric teaches the quest for absolute Truth via rigorous, fair argument, including the judicious use of emotional appeal.
Toward the great end of chasing Truth, it encourages the aspiring speaker—and aspiring leader—to master the subject of one’s speech, or, at any rate, learn a great deal about the subject, before crafting an argument, let alone airing one’s views in public. The central point here is to strive to become an expert oneself, or something approaching that, rather than rely upon other experts.
Thirdly, and this is a corollary of the second observation, it champions “inclusive” information. The speaker ought to gather, if possible, all information or, at a minimum, strive to marshal all significant, competing interpretations of events, people and so forth. Only after the broad-minded marshaling of information or evidence does one select a subset of hopefully persuasive information or proofs, put together a speech and speak it.
The fourth observation may at first seem paradoxical. Classical Rhetoric saves the speaker time! It is replete with labor saving devices. These devices help in researching a subject and in crafting a speech. It is extraordinarily handy because it shows the student or speech crafter how to get so much right the first time or nearly the first time.
The prophet Isaiah may have anticipated Classical Rhetoric when he admonished us all to “reason together.”
Whatever happened to Classical Rhetoric? It turns out that American Higher Education did not champion Classical Rhetoric for very long. Harvard, about three decades after setting up Rhetoric, made yet another innovation when it conjured up the first English Department, simultaneously demoting Rhetoric to the backwater of studies. Once again, so at Harvard, so elsewhere, other schools also subordinated Rhetoric or removed it altogether.
Would our country have been better off in the 19th and 20th centuries, not to mention today, had it heeded John Quincy Adams and made Classical Rhetoric available to a great many Americans? Perhaps it might have been better off and might be now.
In any case, let us make the best use of the present. Our youth whether engaged in public forum debate, policy debate, Model Congress, Model United Nations or other forensics fora surely would not be hurt were they to explore the august tenets of Classical Rhetoric. And may they, by their example, encourage their elders to weigh their own speeches and arguments by the rigorous lights of what was considered sublime in the build-up of civilization.