What is Rhetoric, Anyway?

Just before fall break, Upper School students competed in the Namesake Rhetoric Challenge, which is one of four challenges issued by the houses each year. The Columba house issued the challenge, which called the presenters to give a first-person narrative about the origins of their house name. One presenter from each house was videotaped giving their speech, and the videos were sent to judges from across the country who scored them based on content, relevance to the topic, and delivery.

The judges for this year’s competition were: Adam Lockridge, professor of Rhetoric and Great Books and Academic Director at St. Raphael School in Kansas; Andrew Smith, a teacher and administrator at Veritas School in Richmond, VA; and Jim Carnes, Westminster’s former Rhetoric teacher.

Sally Walker presented for Athanasius House, Clara Halford presented a speech written by Gibby Fakes for Becket, Annie Bolton presented a speech written by Anna Funes for Boniface, and Ashton Storey presented a speech written by Emily Carney for Columba House. The judges’ panel declared Becket House to be the winner of this year’s challenge and awarded 125 points for the win. Athanasius was named 2nd place, Boniface received 3rd, and 4th place went to Columba.

While the competition is great and the fruits are apparent in a polished speech, WHY do we teach Rhetoric in a Classical school? And WHAT exactly is Rhetoric, anyway? To give insight and wisdom, Upper School Rhetoric teacher Nate Smith lent us some words:

“What is rhetoric? At its most basic level Rhetoric is the art of communicating what God is for (and by necessity, what he is against). This involves three aspects: 1) the character of the speaker, 2) the connection with the audience, and 3) and the logic/reasoning of the arguments. These three combined well, bring about persuasion, one of the highest faculties in mankind’s abilities. Think about it, by our words we can change the minds and hearts and actions of others! Furthermore the circumstances we inhabit in life always necessitate speech. We find ourselves speaking to bring about belief, or to make clear the advantages or disadvantages of certain actions, or to praise or blame that which calls for such. By learning how to effectively write and speak we also learn to critique the rhetoric of others. This skill is vital in all future endeavors because lifelong learning requires the ability to see the soundness, motives, and the credibility of what is written and spoken. What will the world be like if our students cannot do the above? Surely someone will fill that void and shape the future generations. Furthermore, and tragically, the world will have no one to move it through God’s truth. Those who learn rhetoric for selfish gain will hold sway over the thoughts and minds and actions of the church and the world (it has happened before!). By the way, is it not curious that some proponents of modern education are now taking aim at the elimination of speaking courses in school curriculum? What would those who propose such ideas gain from children and students who have no rhetorical training? Rest assured we have no such plans, and now more than ever we must teach rhetoric at WA!”

To watch this year’s rhetoric challenge speeches, please click the following links: