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Logic and Rhetoric: Classical Education for Older Students

  • Susan Wise Bauer The Old Schoolhouse Magazine
  • Published Mar 21, 2006
Logic and Rhetoric: Classical Education for Older Students

Editor’s Note: this is Part II of a two-part series on classical education. Click here to read Part I.

Enter the Logic Phase

By the time the child reaches fourth or fifth grade, this early stage of learning begins to pass. Now the student has a good basic sense of daily patterns; Children at this age begin to grow impatient with rote memory, with repetition and with drill. It is no longer as emotionally satisfying as it used to be. They’re ready for the next stage of learning.

Neoclassical educators call this the "logic" or "dialectic" phase of learning. Now that the student has been given the basics of each field of knowledge, he can begin to think more abstractly about them.

Consider the differences between grammar and logic-stage learning in two different academic fields. A grammar-stage student who reads a story should be asked, very simply: What happened in the story? He hasn’t yet mastered the basics of following a story from beginning to middle to end and then recollecting the major events. But the logic-stage student has read hundreds of stories. He has seen the repetition of basic story patterns often enough to grow familiar with them. Now he is ready for a new challenge: to explain why the characters acted as they did. He is ready to think critically about literature.

In history, the grammar-stage student learned that Elizabeth I was a great English queen who never married; the logic-stage student goes one step further and asks, "Why didn’t Elizabeth marry?" The grammar-stage student learns that the American Revolution happened in 1776 and the French Revolution happened in 1789; the logic-stage student asks, "What was the relationship between the two events?"

The shift from memory and drill to critical thinking and analysis shows that the child’s intellect is maturing. But there is also an emotional component in the shift towards critical thinking that takes place during the middle-school years. The childish longing for security and sameness is developing into something else: a desire to know why things happen.

If a first-grader asks you whether a burglar is going to break into the house tonight, the wise parent says, "No, there are no burglars around here." That child doesn’t want an entirely accurate answer ("Probably not, but there is a small chance.") He’s asking for reassurance that this night (like the night before, and the one before that, and the one before that) will pass safely. But the fifth-grader who asks this same question is likely to treat your reassuring answer with skepticism: "How do you know? Isn’t there a chance?" The fifth grader has lived through enough years (and news reports) to know that sometimes the world does change, and that your reassurance is not going to prevent this change.

The child’s greatest need now is not to hear you assure him that everything around him is going to stay the same. Instead, he needs a plan to understand and cope with coming events. The fifth grader needs to hear you say, "Probably not, but if a robber does break in, here’s what we’ll do about it."

The logic stage is a time when children begin to be capable of cause and effect thinking. What a logic-stage child needs, in order to be secure, is a plan. If something bad happens, what will we do about it? What cause will follow on that effect? The impulse towards critical thinking, during the logic-stage years, comes from the growing student’s need to exercise some sort of control over the world around him. He cannot always prevent change from coming, but he needs to understand why changes come—and to make a plan that will help him cope.

The Individualism of the Rhetoric Stage

The grammar-stage student needs security and stability, and the logic-stage student needs to understand why. The high school student’s greatest emotional need is to say: "I am I. I am different. I am unlike my siblings; I am unlike my parents; I am unlike my friends."

A teenager needs, above all, his own sense of identity; he needs to know that he is unique because of what he believes, what he knows, and what he excels at. The tragedy of American high school education is twofold. In the first place, teenagers are not taught rhetoric; they are not given the skills to explain, in speech or in writing, what they believe and why. They remain inarticulate, and so they are forced to rely on external means of displaying their individuality—clothes or tattoos or piercings (which make them all look the same).

Second, American teenagers are forced to remain generalists for far too long. High schools dictate that they take courses in a dozen different areas, and don’t give them the time or space to specialize in any one area. Even when they get to college, students are generally not allowed to declare a major until they are juniors—in many cases, past the age of 20.

The neoclassical education seeks to right both of these imbalances. In the classical tradition, the high school years are a time when students are encouraged to specialize, to dig deeply into the subjects that interest them the most—even if this requires them to, in Dorothy Sayers’ phrase, "rest on their oars" in other subjects. The classical model does not aim to produce a "well-balanced generalist," but rather a student who is passionately interested in and skilled at a particular subject.

Second, the classical model focuses on the proper handling of argumentation during the high school years. Teenagers are expected to be opinionated—as long as they are opinionated in an articulate and logical manner. In the rhetoric stage, the student learns how to write and speak with force and originality. The classically trained teenager has a strong sense of her own unique identity because she not only knows her own strengths, but can defend her own opinions and beliefs.

This is a neoclassical goal that Aristotle would have applauded. In Rhetoric, he wrote, "It is absurd to hold that a man should be ashamed of inability to defend himself with his limbs, but not ashamed of an inability to defend himself with speech and reason; for the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs." In other words, the ability to defend what we believe and feel passionately about is what makes us distinctively human. And, lest we give Aristotle the last word, remember that St. Paul also commands us to be able to give an answer for the hope that is in us.

Susan Wise Bauer was educated at home, back when homeschooling was unheard of. She lives in rural Virginia with her husband and four children, and teaches literature and writing at The College of William and Mary. She also runs Peace Hill Press, which publishes "Books for the Well-Trained Mind."

Copyright 2006. Used with permission. Originally appeared in Winter 2006 The Old Schoolhouse Magazine. Right now, 19 free gifts when you subscribe.