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rhetorical educationWe Americans will soon find ourselves in the maelstrom of another presidential election. Like most Americans, I am interested in what the candidates have to say about the economy and foreign policy, healthcare and immigration, pro-life matters and religious liberties. As a professor of Rhetoric, however, I am perhaps more interested than most of my fellow Americans in not only what candidates say, but how they say it. For Rhetoricians, the contemporary election year is a sad and frustrating phenomenon.

It is all too easy to romanticize the past: the politicians of yesteryear were as noble or as slimy as the politicians we have today. There is, however, a major difference between how past politicians spoke to our ancestors and how current politicians speak to us today. Before televised speeches—let alone the 24-hour news cycle, a development that may spell the doom of the American republic—politicians spoke face-to-face with voters in public speeches and debates.
Presidential candidates still do this, of course, but mainly as a supplement to recorded statements, recorded statements that are usually little more than sound bites or bullet points, giving stock answers to predictable questions. Instead of thoughtful, researched, drawn out arguments the American public gets reductive slogans worthy of an Orwellian regime (“Hopeful compassionate change we can believe in from mavericks who are straight shooters!”).

Politicians, however, are simply giving us what we want, or what we can handle: upon close inspection, the most significant change in our political discourse over the past hundred years or so has been the ability of the audience to listen critically. Consider the audience of an orator like Lincoln: even if his audience consisted of simple farmers, these farmers would have been exposed regularly to examples of oratory modeled on great orations of the past. County fairs often featured Ciceronian orations extolling the virtues of American agriculture; even country preachers modeled themselves on the sermons of great Protestant divines; eloquent, structured toasts and speeches were expected features of public events. American culture at the time of Lincoln, in other words, was one in which the average citizen encountered regularly acts of rhetoric that demonstrated sustained logic in elegant, gripping language, held up to the standards of great Western orators.

The Rhetorical model of Liberal Education—the curriculum followed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, the early Church Fathers, the Byzantines, the Christian Humanists of the Renaissance, and many of the Founding Fathers of America—aimed at training young people to be public figures: people of strong character who could think clearly and speak persuasively in the public sphere. It was an education for leaders, preachers, and statesmen. Traditionally, this kind of rhetorical education was only needed by the ruling class: Chesterton’s free and happy peasants had little need of Ciceronian eloquence. In America, however, if we relegate this kind of Liberal Education to a select few, we are in great danger: every American voter (at least in theory) plays a role in guiding our regime. Liberal Education is a more urgent matter for the average person today than perhaps at any other time in history: he needs the tools to be a critical recipient of the messages constantly bombarding him from the media, able to sort through the mess in a thoughtful manner and deliver an intelligent, persuasive response. Contrast those simple American farmers with the average American voter today: he lives in a culture with no public standards for elevated oral discourse. Public entertainments have no oratorical component. If he goes to church, he probably hears homilies that are either self-help motivational talks or cutesy stories littered with bad jokes (one would be surprised to learn that we have literally hundreds of homiletic manuals and thousands of masterful sermons in the Western tradition!). A toast at a wedding reception or formal party—even a funeral elegy!—is today little more than funny anecdotes poorly strung together. No wonder our politicians talk to us in mentally reductive sound bites.

At Wyoming Catholic College, we teach our students the Rhetorical tradition to make them into strong, confident public thinkers and speakers. Only these kinds of citizens have the ability to reshape our political landscape, demanding more substance from our politicians of whatever stripe, and returning a measure of thoughtful debate and eloquent language to our currently impoverished political discourse.

Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

This essay originally appeared on Cowboys, Philosophers and Poets and is published here by permission of the author.

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5 replies to this post
  1. As someone who practices rhetoric in the field, so to speak, I am delighted to learn that someone such as Dr. Lewis exists and flourishes. Dum spiro spero.

    Here in Afghanistan, where poetry readings attract 40,000 people each weekend, rhetoric is beloved and audiences will happily spend hours listening to good, content-rich oration. Indeed they often feel gipped if talks are too brief. Moreover it is not only performed by elites, as Dr Lewis describes in 19th Century America.

    If there is a countervailing pressure against sound-bites in the West it may be YouTube, where many go to hear talks in full and unedited. Length separates the wheat from the chaff, and exposes who is merely a parrot for his PR advisors.

  2. To judge by the crowds that attended the Lincoln/Douglas debates, and the hours that they would listen, not to mention William Jennings Bryant, the simple American farmer loved great rhetoric.

    And to judge by the fallout from the last Republican debate, which struck me as more substantive in questions and answers than most, Gingrich has taken a big hit because he addressed his audience with intelligent answers instead of mind his p's and soundbites.

  3. John, I hadn't you in mind, nor Hugh Newton, nor I for that matter! But don't we prefer clients who think rather than read whatever they are handed? (Granted that some would be wiser to stop thinking and just read whatever you recommend!)

  4. On a smaller scale (or in smaller races), it is possible to delve deeper into issues still. But not for public communiques. Mailers are meant to be read in 6 to 8 seconds (as that is the most that the average recipient will allow themselves to gaze upon it), but at least our speeches and op-eds can take a slightly more mature tenor. The unfortunate reality is that when you work against a candidate who's consultant has no regard for ethics (as in, none whatsoever), then taking a comment out of the broader context of a speech or piece is the norm and you must guard almost every phrase coming from your candidate's mouth or pen as if it would be read separately of all the rest.

    There are only a few who can get beyond this point–partially because few candidates have the mental fortitude to explain themselves thoroughly on all matters and partially because not every candidate has the ability to build such a deep-penetrating reputation in time for an election and must therefore wait until having held elected office before unfolding a broader set of ideas.

    We've found over and over again that those candidates who can explain ideas to voters fare quite well with individual interactions and small group settings. That is not a very scalable model, though, unless you have substantial time to engage the electorate (usually many months).

    Dr. Lewis points out the primary cause quite clearly. It's not that there aren't people willing to step forward to provide ideas–it's that the people don't demand them, or don't demand them forcefully enough. We are lucky to get 50 people to show up to many events for a State Representative, much less three or four hundred, out of roughly 167,000 constituents. The Tea Party has changed that dynamic some, but so far it has only affected a certain segment of the populace.

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