A Second Look at Classical Education (Part 2)
- Wednesday, August 07, 2002
Rhetoric is the last stage in the trivium. Its uses today are quite limited in a practical sense, but it is enjoyed somewhat as a sport or intellectual exercise. Rhetoric is considered the highest form of persuasion and has come to include writing as well. It uses the "art" of oratory based on the laws of logic. Prior to the advent of printing it was useful for presenting argument and persuasion in a skilled, oratorical fashion. As printing became more widespread the technique lapsed into disuse. Like the grammar and dialectic stages, it holds to no moral considerations. The Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) discusses rhetoric at length, stating, "So in grammar a rhetorical question is one which is asked not for the purpose of obtaining an answer, but simply for dramatic effect." It has been called "argument for arguments sake." The Britannica further states, "As we can see, the way in which an argument is presented is everything and the rightness of the argument is of no consequence. It takes account simply of the faculty - the faculty of discovering any means of persuasion."
Christian debate in the home-school movement has made adjustments to accommodate moral rightness in debate training. The rules of debate throughout colleges and universities today, however, emphasize being persuasive regardless of whether the argument is morally right. The laws that prescribe the rules for debate specify that the moral rightness of the argument is not to be considered; the skill needed is persuasion, not correctness. The greatest criticism of the study of rhetoric is that debate is taken to absurdity because the cleverness of persuasion is so valued that it renders the subject matter irrelevant. Interestingly, Plato criticized rhetoric because he thought the arguments were often trivial and emphasized form over substance. Even our Christian home-school debaters struggle with the question of form over substance. All who have witnessed our young debate teams have been impressed. Still, I think it is something to look at in a prayerful way.
As wonderful as the human mind is, the reason of man will always be flawed. Humanism represents the spirit of this world, which is exemplified in fallen man. Websters Collegiate Dictionary defines humanism as "a philosophy that asserts the dignity and worth of man and his capacity for self-realization through reason and that often rejects supernaturalism." This is the essential philosophy of the classical writers and thinkers. The scriptures remind us that, "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9) And "the carnal mind, (mind of flesh) is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." (Romans 8:7) Not only are these scriptures true, but also our children must embrace them to be called children of God.
When scripture teaches us to "love not the world," it speaks not only of the material world, but the unseen world of moral and spiritual reality. (John 2:15) Watchman Nee, in his book titled Love Not The World, writes concerning the world system, "since the day Adam opened the door for evil to enter Gods creation, the world has shown itself to be hostile to God. The world did not know God (1 Corinthians 1:21), hated Christ (John 15:18), and cannot receive the spirit of truth (John 14:17). Its works are evil (John 7:7), and friendship with the world is enmity with God (James 4:4)."
Today we lament over great institutions of higher learning like Harvard and Yale, which were solidly founded by Christian men for the glory of God. They have become monuments to humanism. What happened? At least part of the answer is that the roots of classical education and the slippery slope of the reason of man undermined the higher goal to glorify God. The slow, but steady erosion was caused by the ever-increasing pressure to be "fair and open-minded" and to not shun liberal thinking. It was decided that students would be ignorant if their instruction was too narrowly bound to the Bible.
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