Adding rhetoric to a literature syllabus can spark something surprising in students.
Few people can say that John Quincy Adams changed their lives. Those who can are wise to keep it to themselves. Friends tell me I should also stop prating about my passion for rhetoric, the 3,000-year-old art of persuasion.
John Quincy Adams changed my life by introducing me to rhetoric.
Years ago, I was wandering through Dartmouth College’s library for no particular reason, browsing through books at random, and in a dim corner of the stacks I found a large section on rhetoric. A dusty, maroon-red volume attributed to Adams sat at eye level. I flipped it open and felt like an indoor Coronado. Here lay treasure.
The book contained a set of rhetorical lectures that Adams taught to undergraduates at Harvard College in the early nineteenth century, when he was a paunchy, balding, 38-year-old United States senator. Adams urged his goggling adolescents to “catch from the relics of ancient oratory those unresisted powers” that, he assured them, “yield the guidance of the nation to the dominion of the voice.”
Unresisted powers. They sounded more like hypnosis than politics, which was sort of cool in a Manchurian Candidate kind of way. And yet, I felt as if I were about to fill a vast gap in my life.
As it turns out, rhetoric is filling an even bigger gap. Little did I know that common core state standards would increase the need for rhetorical skills. These days, the core requires teachers and students to employ literacy standards beyond Language Arts. But we’re talking about more than the common core here. We’re talking about the critical need to nurture articulate, sophisticated citizens.
Like you, most probably, I was a bookish child, absorbing everything I could from works on the Bobbsey Twins to those by Ursula K. Le Guin. I wanted to be a writer, and when a teacher told me that a real writer kept a daily journal, I did that. (Having little to write about, I kept careful notes of what I ate for lunch each day; I still keep a journal—one that covers far more than my midday meal—and I still call it “Lunch.”)
But I wondered whether words did more than tell me things, whether there was something to them besides art. Don’t get me wrong, I loved words, and still do. But I felt like a young Dylan Thomas receiving books “that told everything about the wasp, except why.” Could words get up and make a living for themselves? Could they be useful somehow? Could they change people, maybe the world? I’d heard that the pen was mightier than the sword, and yet the self-expression I was taught in school and witnessed in literature was not of the world-changing sort.
And then I found rhetoric. The ancients considered it the essential skill of leadership, knowledge so important that they placed it at the center of higher education. It taught them how to speak and write persuasively, produce something to say on every occasion, and make people like them when they spoke. After the ancient Greeks invented it, rhetoric helped create the world’s first democracies. It trained Roman orators such as Julius Caesar and Marcus Tullius Cicero, and it gave the Bible its finest language. It even inspired William Shakespeare. Every one of America’s founders studied rhetoric, and they used its principles in writing the Constitution.
In short, I found the why of words. I’m now convinced that I couldn’t truly understand the literature I love without my study in rhetoric. It gives a real purpose to a liberal education, pulling together all of a student’s knowledge while giving her the tools to inspire others. It inoculates her against the kind of manipulation and tribalism that poison our politics. It creates a good citizen. A truly educated one.
You might say that while I was standing in those library stacks, rhetoric talked me into itself. I will never read or write the same again, and that is a very good thing.
Jay Heinrichs spent twenty-five years as a journalist and publishing executive before becoming a full-time advocate for the lost art of rhetoric. Since then he’s taught persuasion to Fortune 500 companies, Ivy League universities, NASA, and the Pentagon. He is also the author of Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines that Get Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever.