Cicero vs. Quintilian

Required blogs for my Theories of Writing class are now taking up most of my blogging energies, leaving me little time/mental energy for my beloved Spiffy Blog.  However, I’ll occasionally post a blog from that class if I think it has some generic appeal.  This is a blog we wrote for class last week after hearing a lecture on the history of rhetoric.

Roman rhetorician Cicero posited the idea that success in rhetoric was measured by the response of the audience. A rousing response meant that the speaker had achieved his goal; the lack of strong response indicated failure. Quintilian challenged this idea by asserting that the virtuous character of the speaker and the quality of his content were the primary indicators of success. According to Quintilian, a cruel dictator may elicit impressive responses, but because of his nefarious character and corrupt message, he is not a successful rhetorician in every sense.

As a high school teacher, part of me wants to believe that Quintilian got it right and Cicero was out to lunch (although admittedly, lunch is difficult without a tongue). I stand before an audience and use rhetoric all day long, and the responses I get are far from what Cicero would term “rousing.” My students are often bored with the content and express little interest in learning the material for its own sake. Their response is typically, “What do I have to do to get the grade I want?” I’d like to think that if my character and content are sound, that one day my students will look back on my class and appreciate everything I tried so hard to give them. I’m an idealist, clinging hard to the notion that the stuff I’m teaching is not only opening doors for the kids’ immediate futures, but also expanding their universes, helping them see life through different points of view, and simultaneously building self-esteem while squashing narcissism. “They’ll get it someday,” I tell myself.

Yet I can’t ignore the validity of Cicero’s perspective. Audience does matter. Response does matter. Kairos does matter. I don’t want to be a stuffy intellectual or one of those Oxford “wall lecturers” who were content to teach to the tables and chairs when students no longer showed up for class. Just as writers don’t write in a vacuum, teachers certainly don’t teach in a vacuum. Teaching, like any academic endeavor, is part of a great conversation and should be treated as such. It’s vital that I continually reevaluate my content and delivery for timeliness, relevancy, and dynamism.

Although teenagers aren’t very intentional about providing positive responses, once in a great while, I get a little exciting feedback. There’s nothing better than hearing the occasional, “Wow, that’s pretty cool,” about Shakespeare or a “Hey, are we gonna read some more Dickinson?” at the end of a poetry unit. Often those responses come from the most unexpected places. My first year of teaching, I had a girl in my Brit Lit class who seldom spoke up and turned bright red when I called on her. Her papers stuck tightly to the prompts and never went a syllable over the required length. Yet at the end of the year, she ducked into my classroom (bright red as usual), slapped an envelope on my desk, and left without a word. Inside, she had written the following: “Dear Mrs. Wilson: I had never really thought of ordinary books having ideas hidden throughout, subtly influencing the mind of the reader. This class helped me to see what power a book can have, even though you might not know it as you’re reading it. This has provided very useful insight for me.”

Good character is essential. Quality content is imperative. But positive responses are the most tangible, rewarding, and downright exciting indicators of the rhetorician’s success.

Sorry, Quintilian.

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