Improving Student Rhetoric Through Immersion
A critical role of the classical educator is to guide students to the rhetoric stage, the summit of a classical education. Young students first learn to read and understand the writings and ideas of others, but then they must learn how to convey their own thoughts and to do so elegantly. In On Christian Teaching, Saint Augustine warns educators about taking the wrong approach to teaching rhetoric. Teachers might be tempted to spend time analyzing and drilling the rules of eloquence, but Augustine says this is of little use; “For even those who have learnt the rules and speak fluently and stylishly are not all able to consider them as they speak in order to make sure that they are following them.” So, if teaching the rules of eloquence does not produce eloquent speakers, what does?
Augustine explains that, much like how toddlers learn to speak by copying those around them, the best method to elevate the language of students is to ensure they are thoroughly immersed in refined speech. He asks, “Why should the eloquent not be able to acquire their eloquence not through the traditional teaching but by reading and listening to the speeches of the eloquent and by imitating them?” Instead of giving long and detailed explanations of the rules of rhetoric, we should be carefully selecting materials that will inspire our students to a higher level of discourse. Furthermore, while instructing, teachers must be careful and deliberate with how we ourselves present ideas. Like students, we too must be regularly engaged with the words of the eloquent in order to improve our own rhetoric. By regularly engaging students with the beautiful, powerful, and unforgettable words of history’s great authors and speakers, teachers can both instruct and inspire students to greater heights of communication.