The rhetoric stage of classical education is the third stage of the trivium. It is where high school students learn to present themselves and the arguments they have learned in the logic stage in a winsome manner. Here high school-aged children continue to learn to debate, with a focus on acquiring wisdom in thought and speech. The phase has been summed up by Quintilian, a famous rhetorician, as teaching ‘a good man to speak well’.
Some benefits of classical education, particularly the third stage, include:
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- creating people who are well-spoken and pleasant to listen to
- teaching teenagers when to speak and when to listen in a gracious manner
- making students who can discern between truth and falsehoods in the media or other general speech
- a curriculum that is focused on producing wise individuals at the close of the trivium
This article will discuss the rhetoric stage of the trivium in detail. It is one in a series of classical education articles, which can be found here.
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What Does Rhetoric Mean?
The word ‘rhetoric’ can be traced back to the Latin and Greek words ‘rhetorice’ and ‘rhētorike tekhnē’. The latter Greek word means the art of an orator, master speaker, or artist of discourse. It has overtones of the word ‘rhesis’ which means to speak and ‘rhema’ which means word, phrase or verb.
For our context, the word rhetoric is best fitted to the meaning ‘the art of an orator’.
How Does the Rhetoric Stage Fit into the Trivium?
The rhetoric stage is the third stage of the trivium in classical education. It comes after the logic or dialectic stage and before a high-school-aged student would study the Quadrivium in a tertiary institution. In the:
- initial grammar stage, students gather many facts, memorizing and learning things that will help them in the dialectic and rhetoric stages.
- middle dialectic stage, students sort the facts they learned in the first grammar stage, discerning knowledge, good and bad, right and wrong.
- last rhetoric stage, adolescents learn the art of ‘a good man speaking well’. Here adolescents learn to eloquently present reasoned arguments of substance.
These stages make up the trivium (trivium means Latin for three-ways or roads [tri-three; via-roads]).
The logic stage (for Christians especially) is intrinsically religious as Christians argue one can’t know anything without fearing God first (Prov 9:10). Therefore, reasoning starts with the knowledge of God. A clear biblical way to put it is:
Knowledge corresponds to grammar. Understanding corresponds to dialectic, and wisdom – just like rhetoric – is the capstone of the previous study. – Douglas Wilson, The Case for Classical Christian Education, p. 134.
What Adolescents are Like in the Rhetoric Stage of Classical Education (Poetic)
Classical education schools and homeschools separate learning into different developmental stages that students enter at different periods in their lives. When teenagers start showing signs of wanting to present themselves effectively, they’re ready for the rhetoric stage of classical education.
This stage has been described as the poetic phase. Douglas Wilson, in his book, The Case for Classical Christian Education, talked about this phase, saying:
Poetic. At this time of life, children are concerned with appearances. If we have grasped the principle, then we teach them how to present themselves. Consequently, here we would locate the literature courses, the rhetoric course, the apologetics course, and so on. These are the high school years. The reason we have so many “undisciplined” kids trying so hard to be “cool” is not because they are slovenly or lazy. They are trying hard to “present” but have not been taught how to do so. The result is various, disheveled “rhetorics”: “Dude, like I was totally there.” – p. 136.
When we hear a teenager with a high ‘like’, ‘dude’, and ‘umm’ count, we inwardly cringe as it grates on our ears. We hope they’ll ‘grow out of it’.
By contrast, when one hears a teenager speaking with precision and eloquence, it reflects well on educators. Here, we say, is a parent or teacher who has effectively taught their children to embrace the language intelligently.
Debate in the Rhetoric Stage of the Trivium
The purpose of classical education – and the focus of the last stage of the trivium – is to produce wise individuals with the tools to learn subjects easily. This should happen more readily given the excellent coaching in knowledge and discernment they’ve received in the first two stages.
For classical students, debating preparation starts when children learn lots of facts (knowledge) in the grammar stage. They might not do any debating at this point, but they’re gathering facts that they can use for that purpose later.
Debating begins in the logic stage, as children become more argumentative. They learn to smell out a lie and poke holes in arguments that aren’t sound. However, if there is no progression to the rhetoric stage, educators will create students who are only good at arguing, but may not do so elegantly and persuasively.
This is why debate in the rhetoric stage of classical education is so important. Adolescents can fine-tune their debating skills, focusing on presenting themselves well and persuasively, using the knowledge and discernment they learned in the first two stages.
Does Latin Continue?
When you look at classical education vs modern education, you will perhaps be most struck by its emphasis on teaching Latin. A hallmark of classical education is that it teaches Latin to its students from the beginning of the first stage until the end of stage two.
It does this so students get a good grasp on the language and discover the root meanings of many words, making the learner’s understanding of the language deeper and their use of words more precise.
By the time they’ve studied Latin throughout the grammar and logic stages, they should have a good grasp of the language. At the beginning of the rhetoric stage, students can choose to continue the subject if they like it or discontinue it if they don’t like it or have no aptitude for learning it.
What Do Students Study in the Rhetoric Stage of Classical Education?
The rhetoric stage is all about electives. The subjects studied depend highly on the student’s preferences. In regards to subjects studied in the rhetoric stage, Sayers says:
It is difficult to map out any general syllabus for the study of Rhetoric: a certain freedom is demanded. – Lost Tools of Learning, p. 16.
In the rhetoric stage, classical educators get students to focus on literature appreciation, more than destructive criticism.
Educators should use this stage to encourage children to focus on a couple of subjects in detail depending on their interests and aptitude. This being said, they should learn a little of every subject so as to have a general idea of other, subsidiary subjects. This helps high school students make links between the subjects.
Indeed, this is the phase when students are learning all knowledge is one. They make this link through the study of theology in which everything relates back to God (Sayers calls it the ‘mistress science’).
Mathematics can also be discontinued in this stage if students wish.
Sayers believed the scope of the rhetoric stage needs to depend on whether the student plans on continuing formal education in the quadrivium, or not.
What Age Should the Rhetoric Stage of Classical Education Begin?
The rhetoric stage of classical education should begin at about age 14 and end at age 16. However, this also depends on the aptitude of the student and whether they are showing signs of exiting the pert stage and entering the poetic stage. As such, it might be useful to start some students earlier, and others later, depending on where they’re up to. Sayers says this about the age the rhetoric stage should begin:
The scope of Rhetoric depends also on whether the pupil is to be turned out into the world at the age of sixteen or whether he is to proceed to public school and/or university. Since, really, Rhetoric should be taken at about fourteen, the first category of pupil should study Grammar from about nine to eleven, and Dialectic from twelve to fourteen; his last two school years would then be devoted to Rhetoric, which, in his case, would be of a fairly specialized and vocational kind, suiting him to enter immediately upon some practical career. A pupil of the second category would finish his Dialectical course in his Preparatory School, and take Rhetoric during his first two years at his Public School. At sixteen, he would be ready to start upon those “subjects” which are proposed for his later study at the university; and this part of his education will correspond to the mediæval Quadrivium. What this amounts to is that the ordinary pupil, whose formal education ends at sixteen, will take the Trivium only; whereas scholars will take both Trivium and Quadrivium. – Dorothy Sayers, Lost Tools of Learning, pp. 16-17.
How the Rhetoric Stage of the Trivium Equips Students
Compared to modern education, the trivium equips students with tools for learning that are far beyond those given to public school students. Although classical students might not learn as many facts as the modern student, the training they receive helps them to learn subjects more easily once they finish the rhetoric stage. Sayers says this on the subject.
Indeed, I am not at all sure that a pupil thoroughly proficient in the Trivium would not be fit to proceed immediately to the university at the age of sixteen, thus proving himself the equal of his mediæval counterpart, whose precocity often appears to us so astonishing and unaccountable. This, to be sure, would make hay of the public-school system, and disconcert the universities very much… – Dorothy Sayers, Lost Tools of Learning, p. 17.
Sayers said this at a time when universities were quite difficult to enter, which seems to increase the weight of the statement more.
How to Get a Classical Education Curriculum for a Homeschool
If you want your children to study the classical method in your school or homeschool, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel and create your own curriculum. Instead, there are plenty of decent classical Christian education options around such as Veritas Press, Classical Conversations, and My Father’s World (the latter is a mix between classical, unit studies, and Charlotte Mason education).
I’ve looked into some of these options which can be found reviewed here. There is also a free option that can be found on this page (although I believe it is more of a classical education reading list).
Further Reading on the Rhetoric Stage of Classical Education
I can’t recommend Dorothy Sayer’s Lost Tools of Learning more highly. It is a must-read for anyone seriously considering giving their children a classical education. This is because it’s the basis of most Christian classical education today.
Another great book that will help you understand Classical Christian education today (albeit in a school context), is Douglas Wilson’s The Case for Classical Christian Education. Wilson bases his arguments heavily on Sayer’s writings but adds a lot of flesh to the bones.
As you can see I’ve quoted extensively from both texts in this article as I’ve wanted to get to the original sources of modern classical Christian education.
Don’t forget that this website is also a classical education blog as well as a homeschooling blog. I focus on teaching parents to be better classical and Charlotte Mason teachers as I believe these are two of the best homeschooling methods around.
The last stage of the Trivium, the rhetoric stage, equips students to speak well and deliver the good content they have learned and been trained in through the grammar and logic stages of classical education. The rhetoric stage equips students to operate with wisdom, discernment, and knowledge in a world that is sorely lacking these things in its people. It gives graduates a lingual head-start so that if they choose to study the quadrivium (or another college course) in a tertiary institution, they are more than prepared with a rigorous education. To discover more about the 7 Liberal Arts, check out the links to classical education articles here.