It's All About the Rhetoric

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The art of persuasion underlies good writing--and good citizenship

By Art Leo

Art Leo and a 9th grader in a paper conference

Visitors to Catlin Gabel frequently note the progressive elements in the writing program offered by the English department. The steady mix of analytical and creative writing assignments allows young writers to recognize more clearly both the analytical components of creative writing and the creative opportunities inherent in the best analytical writing. We have in place a system of collaboration between student writers in the generation and revision of texts, a process that reaches its zenith in the peer editing process. Other effective components of the program have little or nothing to do with the ways in which I was taught to write in high school: the many assignments in which students write about their writing, the one-on-one conferences between instructor and writer that conclude every writing assignment, the web-based tools for the management of documents, and the use of laptop-based technology to enhance peer collaboration and encourage revision.

At the philosophical heart of our approach, however, lie some very old ideas about communication derived from classical rhetoricians, primarily Aristotle. From these stalwart thinkers, we retain the idea that rhetoric—the art of persuasion—is first and foremost a civic art. We believe that our primary goal as teachers of communication skills is to empower young citizens to be more persuasive so they might become agents of positive social change through their compelling use of logic and language.

We help our students understand that any act of communication is made up of the three components of rhetorical context: the speaker’s purpose, the thing being said, and the needs and values of the audience. When our students speak and write, we want them to analyze their own communication to assess how best they might entertain, inform, and persuade their audiences. Whether it is freshmen learning to craft effective thank-you notes, sophomores preparing original tales to share with 1st graders or working on their Agents of Change projects, juniors arguing readings of American poetry, or seniors laboring over the personal statements at the center of their college applications, they are all learning to be more persuasive through their analyses of specific rhetorical contexts and their burgeoning control of the written word.

Like Aristotle, we realize that we run the risk of creating powerful sophists capable of persuasion without virtue, but we also understand that mastery of rhetoric is central to the perpetuation of civilization. As the rhetorician Isocrates noted in his Antidosis, “We are in no respect superior to other living creatures; nay, we are inferior to many in swiftness and in strength and in other resources; but, because there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other and to make clear to each other whatever we desire, not only have we escaped the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts.”

As we send Catlin Gabel students out into the world, we recognize that some of them will make laws, invent arts, and found cities, but we hope that all of them will be able to apply their mastery of rhetoric to improve the communities of which they have become part. We know that many of them will soon take a first step by beginning to teach their college classmates the lessons they have learned at Catlin Gabel about rhetoric.

Upper School English teacher Art Leo came to Catlin Gabel in 1995.