A Dearth of Rhetorical Flourish (by Joshua Arbogast)

[Note: Mr. Joshua Arbogast is an eight-year veteran teacher of the Great Hearts network, having taught in elementary and prep schools, both in Arizona and Texas. His classroom acumen is nimble enough to synchronize grade-schoolers in a Spalding phonetic chant as easily as he shepherds high schoolers through a close reading of Plato’s Republic. And, as of this year, Josh is working part-time as the Institute’s communications manager. To borrow the baseball idiom, Josh is what we call a “multi-tool player.”]

Yesterday marked the beginning of the 2020 presidential debate season, as President Donald J. Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden faced off at Case Western University.  Marked by frequent insults and interruptions, the debate left many viewers wanting fewer debates, not more.

So, what is the case for more debates?

First, should be our understanding that debate is central to the American system. In order to arrive at a Declaration of Independence, colonial representatives debated the ideas of liberty and fealty. Our Constitution was knit together through debate in Philadelphia and then in the states.  Such was the source for our nation’s founding.

More than 70 years later, Lincoln’s “House Divided Speech” planted the seeds that would preserve the Union—all of which came out of his debates with Stephen Douglas.  Thus, debate sustained our nation through its most fractious period.

Now maybe we shouldn’t expect such masterful rhetoric to come out of contemporary debates…or maybe we should.

A tool of the great statesmen is the wielding of words to achieve that classical dictum: “Docere, Delectare, Movere,” or “To Teach, To Delight, To Move.” Perhaps these three are needed more than ever.

The Institute for Classical Education is dedicated to revitalizing civic education in America. Part of this is preparing students with an understanding of their rhetorical heritage. Designed by a team led by the Institute’ s director, the American Rhetorical Tradition is an elective offered at Great Hearts schools tailored to provide that facet of education and teach students how to effectively use language well.


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