Times Literary Supplement Article on Rhetoric Promotes The College at Southeastern (Sort of)

We’ve been saying it for years. The College at Southeastern (C@SE) offers a rigorous education unrivalled by most colleges. But now Stanley Wells has said it also, in a recent article in The Times Literary Supplement entitled, “Apple Clause,” (March 16, 2012, p. 12). In the article, Wells reviews several recent books on rhetoric and (albeit unintentionally) gives three cheers for the type of education offered by C@SE.

Wells reviews Sam Leith’s new book, You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (Profile, 2011), which bemoans the loss of classical education in general and of rhetoric in particular. “For hundreds of years,” Leith remarks, “rhetoric was at the centre of Western education, but it has now all but vanished as a subject of study-divvied up like post-war Berlin between linguistics, psychology and literary criticism. Even in universities it is seen as a quaint and rather prissy minority interest.” As Leith sees it, rhetoric was cast by the wayside in the middle of the nineteenth century as a by-product of the Classics being abandoned as the foundation for undergraduate core curriculum.

Leith argues that this loss has paid negative dividends for our public discourse, as our politicians will struggle in their ability to lead the country the way Churchill did for Great Britian and the way Lincoln did for the USA. Regarding Churchill, for example, Leith writes, “He spent hour after hour working on drafts of his speeches – indeed, he devoted fully six weeks to preparing his first major speech in the Commons.” Regarding Lincoln, he notes that the former President adapted the techniques of classical rhetoric to the vernacular of the American masses.

I think Leith is right, and am grateful to Wells for making us aware of You Talkin’ to Me? For those of our readers who are interested in why rhetoric (properly conceived) is an indispensable tool for life in this world, I offer Dorothy Sayer’s “The Lost Tools of Learning.” In this essay, Sayers argues that the great defect in 20th century education was that teachers conveyed information without teaching students the art of thinking and learning.

In Sayers’ opinion (and I agree), the Medieval “Trivium” (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric) fosters in students the arts of thinking and learning. “The whole of the Trivium,” Sayers writes, “was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to ‘subjects’ at all. First, he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of a language, and hence of language itself-what it was, how it was put together, and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language; how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument. Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language-how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.”

For this reason, C@SE incorporates all three aspects of the Trivium into its core curriculum, and does so by (1) requiring a foreign language for all students, (2) making “critical thinking and communication” a core competency which should be fostered in every classroom, (3) marking out several writing-intensive courses in which the student must demonstrate critical thinking through writing, and (4) facilitating a Writing Center, which helps our students develop in logic, disputation, and rhetoric. Further, C@SE offers a Humanities major, in which students take courses devoted to logic and rhetoric.

All of that to say two things: (1) the world that God created has language woven deeply into its fabric. We want to use language well to God’s glory, (2) if you are looking for a college that will help you, or somebody you love, to develop in those skills, C@SE is the place to enroll.

Briefly Noted: The Chronicle, on “Rebooting the Academy: 12 Big Ideas”

The world of higher education finds itself in a heightened tizzy these days, as it adjusts to many new realities, such as online education, electronic course management systems, and so forth. A recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 2: A10-17) heightens the tizzy even further as it takes the reader on a lively, thought-provoking romp through new approaches to teaching and research with digital tools. Like many romps, it has no real destination, but the experience is worth it.

The article presents 12 cutting-edge educators who are making tech savvy proposals and contributions to education at the secondary and college level. This blogpost highlights only five of the Chronicle’s 12 leaders in order to give an idea of what “Rebooting the Academy” might look like (otherwise, we’d have to rename this column “Laboriously Noted” or, perhaps, “Unctuously Noted”).

So here they are, our five chosen innovators:

1. Candace Thille of Carnegie Mellon University seeks to address “higher education’s ‘cost disease’ with team-built online courses used across institutions.” (A10) Thille directs the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon. The initiative aims for faculty at various institutions to work with her team on creating “expensively built online course materials, cheaply available to the masses.” (A10) Her proposal includes creating open online courses (in core subjects like statistics and biology) which track student work on online modules outside of class. After faculty consult that data, they know better how to use in-class time, so the proposal goes. Thille desires to correct widespread student failure in such courses, at a lower cost to students, but her proposal is not without much backlash from the faculty she speaks with as she tours the country promoting the initiative.

2. Sal Kahn of Kahn Academy is working to “build a vast library of short educational videos” that serves as “a challenge to end the lecture as we know it.” (A10) Kahn Academy is a free online library of thousands of 10-minute tutorials on subjects from calculus to American history. In the tutorials, Kahn’s own voice narrates work he does on a digital whiteboard. You never see his face, only hear his voice. Students watch the tutorials at home then do more work in the area at school the next day. His work caught the attention of Bill Gates, who threw a lot of financial support Kahn’s way via the Gates Foundation. Kahn and his academy were recently featured in a 60 Minutes piece (http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7401696n).

3. Burck Smith, founder of StraighterLine, believes he can “make online education cheaper by letting companies offer courses on behalf of colleges.” (A14) In fact, Smith believes he can get costs down to $999 for the first full year of college. He plans to do this by providing popular college courses online and partnering with accredited colleges that give students transfer credit. The students are students of the company.

4. John Wilkin of the University of Michigan wants to “pool digital collections from universities to build a super-library for the 21st century.” (A14) Wilkin is executive director of HathiTrust, an “online digital repository with more than 10 million volumes.” The project was created in 2008 alongside Google’s book-scanning project and is housed at U. Michigan. The goal for Wilkin is not to emphasize “digital” but “library” in his project. That is, the purpose of HathiTrust is to figure out “how to manage ever-bigger amounts of information and how to make the best collective use of resources.” This is a constant challenge for libraries in the age of the hard book and digital book.

5. Daniel Cohen from George Mason University is trying to “find new ways to do humanities research using digital tools, and give even non-techy scholars the ability to use them.” (A16) Cohen is actively thinking about how technology can advance, not harm, disciplines like history. “Mr. Cohen feels that many scholars don’t grasp the full potential of digital tools.” Thus, his center developed Zotero, which is a powerful way to do (and save) research quickly. Cohen is above all seeking to challenge old ways of reading texts while supporting more efficient collection of the growing number of texts.

Well there you have it folks. Just as your professor has finally replaced his leisure suits with sandblasted jeans, his papyri with power point, and his greenbook with Moodle, he might have a few more adjustments to make.