There’s just something about teaching the art of persuasion to sophomores—those “wise fools”—that brings the adjective of that epithet to the forefront: they’re becoming wisdom seekers. They still have the energy of younger students but now have added a growing seriousness. They are themselves intuitive rhetoricians, but now they’re eager to learn the why behind how it works. True, they’re not ready to take the stage and offer an original, sustained and well-reasoned argument about a topic of contemporary interest (that will be soon enough, in their senior year), and they seem to know they’re not quite ready. But they’re eager to start down that road anyway.
Wise fools, indeed!
And so that’s where my school begins formal instruction in rhetoric: 10th grade. We call that course “Principles of Persuasion” because in it students learn 34 concepts and terms that give names to what it is they already do and how it is they do it—influence others. These terms include the three rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos), the five canons (invention, organization, style, memory, and delivery), and the three species (judicial, epideictic, and deliberative), among others. Throughout the course, we slowly track those terms and together build a mind map of rhetoric; by the end of the course, each student can draw the entire map from memory. (This is a fun exercise to do on the board, by the way.) I’ve included a simplified version of that mind map below.
Now, my first semester teaching the course, I made a grave mistake: I lectured. I taught the material as I’d learned it in graduate school—straight out of Aristotle and into their brains. It took only a week or two of glazed eyes and nodding heads for me to realize that these lovely and lively sophomores need something quite different. They need to learn by doing. So I created in-class activities that reinforce these concepts. My students call them “games” and “competitions,” but that was never my point. Though the class workshops are admittedly fun, I take dead seriously my job of teaching them the principles. And in terms of competition, they all—whether they win or lose—are learning how to put the concepts into practice, which is a victory in its own right.
During their eleventh-grade year, my students take a second course in rhetoric. Already, they have changed. Their playfulness is tempered, and the previous note of seriousness has become a full scale of gravity. They’re less interested in the game-like workshops, and they want to be to be taken seriously for their ideas.
This is when we introduce the junior thesis. Yes, they continue to pore over excellent examples of rhetoric from the past—such as Mark Antony’s eulogy in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”—but we also bring the conversation up to the present moment. The junior year, we step back through those very same 34 terms, but this time we’re applying them to a topic of personal interest, preparing students to take up a contemporary issue. They learn firsthand how to sustain and arrange an argument. It’s a miniature version, a mere taste, of what they will do the next year on a larger scale.
Which brings us to the goal of our rhetoric program: the senior thesis. The thesis is a persuasive address that deals with a debatable, important issue of the day. Here are some examples of issues our students have taken up: What are the theological problems concerning artificial intelligence? Do Christians have a special responsibility to adopt children? Should suffering always be avoided, or can it be a meaningful way of growing? Does a church’s architecture and aesthetics matter?
After spending the first semester of their final year researching their issue as well as meeting with an expert in that particular field, our seniors prepare a twenty minute address that is delivered before the entire school community. After they give their presentations, they are questioned by a three-person panel made up of adults who have some expertise in the area, and then by members of the audience.
If you think that sounds like a daunting and harrowing experience, you’re right. But the shocking thing is that every senior I’ve taught has said the same thing: it’s their favorite moment in school.
In fact, some of us teachers are more than a little envious of our soon-to-be-graduates, and we wish we’d had a similar rite of passage in high school. After all, such a hallmark signals the baton of leadership is being passed on, and shows them that they are ready to move from the chair in the back of the room to the podium up front. Which is what rhetoric—the art of a good person speaking well—is all about.
You see, the senior thesis changes the senior. Seniors take their thesis issue selection very seriously, and they grow up intellectually as their issue evolves and takes shape over the course of the research and writing. The thesis gives each student a moment to step out from the crowd, to say something important. The shy student gets just as much time and attention as the extrovert. And it is very often the student who has previously seemed “checked out” academically who will surprise the entire class by rising to the occasion and wowing his or her peers with a thoughtful and impassioned argument.
Why? Because the projects are 100% their own. When a student must stand before peers and take ownership for what is being argued, all bets are off. There is no safety net, and the thesis will stand or fall based on the speaker’s own preparation. It’s a ton of responsibility. And they love it.
But the thesis does more than just affect the senior; each thesis presentation leaves a mark on the school itself. The issues and their arguments become part of the school identity. Younger students will for years reference a conclusion or recall a point made by a thesis presenter: “Family dinners are important. Remember Andrew’s thesis?” or “You know that philanthropy and charity aren’t the same, right? That’s what Ashtyn taught us.” And in terms of modeling, it’s great, too. Younger students witness an older student offering an impassioned, well-reasoned argument about their world, and they can see that it matters.
In a sense, then, rhetoric is about growing up. It’s about moving from foolishness to wisdom, and from being influenced to influencing others. The good news is that we don’t have to leave those things entirely to chance. Training students to examine the evidence, to consider carefully the ethical implications of their arguments, and to winsomely defend a position in a setting that extends beyond the classroom—those are the goals of a rhetoric program. Teaching the art of persuasion is, as the Greeks and Romans knew, more than just a good idea. It’s a way of transforming language users into up-and-coming rhetoricians, leaders ready to take a stand on what’s important.
Alyssan Barnes is the author of the high school textbook Rhetoric Alive!: Principles of Persuasion. She began teaching in 2001 in a classical school in the inner city of Dallas, a school that offered a classical education to students from the projects. She now teaches rhetoric, Latin, and AP English at Live Oak Classical School in Waco, where her children also attend. She holds a Ph.D. in Rhetoric, and her dissertation focused on classical education.