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.

Guest Blog: On Disciplined Writing (3): Writing Praxis 101

By: John Burkett

Editor’s Note: John Burkett is Instructor of Rhetoric and Composition and Director of the Writing Center at SEBTS. He is a nice fellow who also has keen mind and pen. We at BtT invited him to write a follow-up to Bruce Ashford’s series, “On Disciplined Reading.” This is the third installment of three.

Writing Praxis 101: Audience-Message-Author.

Given our Christian confession (or “foundation,” for those who prefer a modernist term), what can we say about communication and more particularly about the symbolic action we call writing? When we gain a Christian perspective-attitude for writing, we “necessarily” transform our view of the three elements in any rhetorical situation, consisting of audience, message, and author.

First, as writers we become more concerned with audience, like the Apostle Paul was concerned with audience and shaped his message to his audience. Second, we become more concerned with the truth of our message, like the Apostle John loved the truth and took care to present words well (clearly, validly, winsomely) so that he would encourage God’s “children walking in truth.” Third, “you” as an author embark on a never-ending adventure that transforms who you are as you consider audience and message, like Luke’s adventure in the book of Acts. For, as Garrison Keillor has observed, “Writing is a means of discovery, always.” Discovery (classical “rhetorical invention”) means that writing is a thinking tool for generating ideas, ideas that shape not only our message and perhaps an audience but also the author. Since writing is a thinking tool that affects an author’s sanctity, many consider writing to be a “spiritual” discipline.

Audience First.

I would like to emphasize that writing can be a fun activity because it’s a social experience–communication in community. Writing can be a “fun discipline” if we keep in mind that we have an audience who cares about us and our thought life. This audience is our “dialogic self” (we are our own first reader), our God (the ever-present “super-addressee”), our direct audience if any (whom we directly address), and an indirect audience (someone we imagine who may read our work, such as a respected parent, brother, sister, mentor, or friend). For this reason, I suggest to my writing students that they should not write for the professor (because that is a recipe for mediocrity) but write instead for “someone whom you respect,” someone with whom you would not mind sharing your work. Awareness of audience transforms writing from a mere “assignment” or “recording data” into “expression” and even “communication” because we are participating in a meaningful social dialogue.

Questions Concerning Audience.

Are you (un)concerned about grammatical correctness? Then be more concerned with audience, and you will find the “strange” motivation to learn the conventions of written communication. Are you (un)concerned with clarity, concision, and style? Then be more concerned with audience and how your words will affect your audience, and you will find a clear and appropriate form for your sentences and message. Are you (un)concerned about your audience? Then be more concerned about your ever-present “super-addressee” or your respected “indirect audience.” “Above all, write unto others as you would have others write unto you.”

While not writing a handbook (for they are plentiful), I have sought to outline some helpful strategies for the “discipline of writing,” which I hope helps you become a more confident and competent writer who enjoys clear, precise, and correct prose.

A follow-up article may arrive later (discussing Christian perspectives of message and author). As always, I invite you to contact me in the Writing Center at Southeastern with your specific questions about writing.

Guest Blog: On Disciplined Writing (2): Theology and Writing 101

By: John Burkett

Editor’s Note: John Burkett is Instructor of Rhetoric and Composition and Director of the Writing Center at SEBTS. He is a nice fellow with a wickedly keen mind and pen. We at BtT invited him to write a follow-up to Bruce Ashford’s series, “On Disciplined Reading.” This is the second installment of three.

Theology and Writing Theory 101.

Contrary to popular opinion, writing is not a “subject” or a “course,” nor merely “expression,” but it is an art of communication. The words communication and community come from the Latin communis, meaning “common.” Written communication is a community art: learned in community, serving social discourse, and building bridges of understanding (first in ourselves and then between people) constructed by language in our everyday conversations. We may think of writing as concentrated (in both senses) communication.

God the Author and the Conversation of Mankind.

Applying an analogy from speech, I’ve said that reading and writing are like a conversation, meaning that writing is the “talking” phase of those conversations in which we have an interest. After “listening in” on a conversation by reading (and research), at some point you will desire to “talk back.” By writing, we enter the conversation, “talking back” or “answering” or “elaborating,” sometimes by dialoguing with an author in the margins of our book or by responding in a more formal genre.

Reading and writing are always dialogic, making writing the responsive phase of a dialogue or conversation. When I write, I am responding, considering an author’s actions and words–words being symbolic action.

Our dialogic drama begins with God as a Trinity and as an Author. We remember, of course, that Moses wrote as a response to the wondrous works and words of God, that the biblical prophets wrote as a response to their God-given burdens, that the psalmists wrote as a response to God’s promises and salvation, that the apostles wrote in response to the fulfilled promises in Jesus Christ and in response to the concerns of the churches, that the church fathers wrote our catholic creeds as a response to schisms, heresies, and concerns for grace and truth in their time.

In a more modest sense, I am writing in response to an invitation, also to the “literary crisis” that occurs every year in our country, and to a certain call of God, who desires his church family and his family’s elders to be proficient, if not excellent, readers and writers, interpreters and communicators.

The Holy Trinity and the “Dialogic Self.”

It is St. Augustine, that beloved professor of rhetoric, who intimately examines our dialectical psychology and epistemology in De Trinitate and who beautifully expresses his own “dialogic self” in his Confessions, in which he addresses God from beginning to end. Augustine presses dialectic to its extremity, suggesting that the conscious self is itself a dialogue–a dialectic between the human self and God and others in community. According to Augustine, our “dialogic self” is always already in dialogue with, and “possessed” by, another voice–namely (at some level) God.

Augustine is most profound when he examines our dialectical psychology and attempts to understand the divine through understanding the self in analogy (of being) to, in relation to, and in imitation of the Trinity. According to Augustine, the human self is an “imago trinitatis,” reflecting the inner sociality of our Triune God (see De Trinitate, books 9-15). Augustine’s Christian psychology is radically different from the modern, quiet, indivisible Cartesian self, based on a simple monistic substance. Rather, Augustine’s “dialogic self” suggests that the verbal dialogue within the self is the ontological individual-social condition, which is our foundation for understanding how communication and writing work.

Secular scholars are privy to our interior-social condition and discuss how our “inner sociality” becomes externalized in our writing. For instance, writing theorist Kenneth Bruffee states, “If thought is internalized conversation, then writing is internalized conversation re-externalized.” Bruffee, I believe, is correct, but as Christians, we can say more, for instance, suggesting that dialogue is a theological imperative because we are “hard-wired” with other-regard.

In our short study of theology and writing theory, we understand by informed faith that God is an Author (the Alpha and Omega), that God is a “social” Trinity, that mankind is created in the image of the “social” Trinity, and that man imitates God by authoring many conversations. This theological perspective humanizes the writing process and makes it a central part of creating and sustaining meaningful community (and “interpretive communities”).

Thus, to abandon dialogue–to neglect reading and writing–harms us more immediately than it harms others. Alternatively, when we engage ourselves and others by reading and writing, we engage in a meaning-making process that benefits self and others when done respectfully.