What is rhetoric? You’ve probably heard or thought of rhetoric as the art of persuasion. Fans of Aristotle will probably think of it as the art of finding the available means of persuasion. If you follow in the vein of Quintilian, you will probably think of it as the art of persuasion toward truth (and goodness and beauty). For those of you who have heard Andrew Kern speak on the topic, you’ve probably picked up something along the lines of rhetoric being the art of decision-making in community. One of these is decidedly not like the others.
In a previous article, “Why Do You Teach,” I wrote about teachers pursuing the good of their students. Drawing an analogy between friendship and teaching (as Aristotle did between friendship and governance), I wrote:
For the good of the other, that is the answer to our question. Or is it? What does that even mean? In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains what friendship is. Perhaps understanding friendship might help us to understand the relationship between teacher and student, even if the relationship between a teacher and his student is not one we might typically describe as a friendship.
For Aristotle, that student of Plato and therefore Socrates, there are three kinds of friendship: a friendship of utility, a friendship of pleasure, and pure friendship.
Plato is one of those old, ancient philosophers—a Greek no less. That necessarily means he will be hard to read—and boring. Far better would it be to read a book about Plato rather than actually read his stuff. Besides just being old and Greek, he wrote dialogues. Who writes dialogues anymore? Write an essay or write a novel but don’t write dialogues! I couldn’t imagine having to read something so boring or confusing.
Socrates, the gadfly of Athens, was put to death for being annoying. Well, it wasn't necessarily that simple of a trial or an indictment, but in the end, that's what it boiled down to. He was annoying the older generation, even saying that if they kill him, they will simply spur the younger generation to carry on his work. Not only would they do so, he says, but they would be even more aggravating in doing it because they wouldn't have the wisdom, patience, and experience Socrates had.
Like most people, I have had a particular definition of rhetoric that has guided my understanding and application of it for a while. That definition, though, was not my original understanding of rhetoric, and it has recently been modified once again. What fascinates me about my changing understanding of rhetoric is the effect it has had on my understanding of stories where rhetoric is a key factor, especially William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
Classes have begun again, following Christmas break, and it was a difficult beginning. My students all returned, most having seen (typically two or three times) the recent Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Imagine my surprise when math class was distracted by conversations about Rey’s parentage, when science class was distracted by conversations about the Star Killer Base, when Latin class was distracted by conversations ranking the various Star Wars films according to their quality as movies.
What is wisdom? As parents and teachers, how do we view wisdom in light of our vocation? Can we expect education to be a path to wisdom? Is it merely a gift we passively wait to receive? Is it contradictory to say that education is the path to wisdom when it is actually received as a gift, or vice versa? Questions like these are not unimportant, even if they feel a bit philosophical and esoteric. Why, for instance, do we train up our child in the way he should go if his going is a gift?
"Cogito ergo sum." These famous words from the philosopher René Descartes summarize his view, or maybe his thought experiment, on how we know. For Descartes, knowledge is knowledge if it originates in the thinker. Any knowledge that originates outside of the thinker must be doubted, questioned, examined, and reasoned by the thinker so as to make it knowledge that could have originated within the thinker. Until the knowledge originates in the thinker, it cannot be considered actual knowledge.
There are three kinds of people in this word, it has been said. Those that think math is a waste of time beyond learning to count, add, subtract, multiply, and divide and thus is primarily useful for consumerism. Those that think that math is amazing because it is extremely useful for the construction of bridges, building, airplanes, cars, and more. These are the engineers. And, finally, those that think math is beautiful for its own sake. Each group is smaller than the previous.
A person's approach to teaching math will differ based on which group he is in.