As I was traipsing through England on a whirlwind three-day tour, my first stop was the University of Oxford. I went on a tour led by a current student, and one of the places we visited was the Bodleian Library. The Bodleian Library is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and is the heart of the Oxford campus. It was finished in 1620 and has 10 lecture rooms with titles above the doors that reflect the books and lectures that are held there. The picture below shows what one of these lecture room doors looks like.
Of the ten doors, three were entitled: Schola Grammaticae et Historiae (school of grammar and history), Schola Logicae (school of logic), and Schola Astronomiae et Rhetoricae (school of astronomy and rhetoric).
The school of grammar and history I get. Grammar and history being linked together makes sense, as jointly they shape the foundation of education. Logic standing alone makes sense too (maybe even in 1620 they knew that 7th and 8th graders are a creature like no other). But, rhetoric and astronomy? This connection made me pause. For the rest of the tour I wondered why these two ‘schools’ were linked together.
In 1620, the Hubble Telescope and the Space Station didn’t exist. Little data and evidence could be found regarding astronomy, and so if you were passionate about the topic, and wanted to pull others in, then you needed to possess a strong ability to persuade. Above another of the ten doors at the library is written Schola Moralis Philosophiae (school of moral philosophy). The culture of 1620 recognized that those who were studying astronomy needed specific skills in persuasion…while morality was a more black and white issue.
What a difference a few hundred years makes.
If as a nation we were to build a library today, what subject would rhetoric be linked with? My gut says that it would no longer be astronomy. We live in a culture where absolute truth and morality are no longer agreed upon and because of that, our students need to be well equipped to persuade those around them about what they know is true. In the book The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, rhetoric is defined as “the adaptation of language to circumstance.” Circumstances have changed and our aim as educators is to provide our students with the tools necessary to adapt their language to those changing circumstances. In 1610 Galileo used his telescope to discover the Milky Way. I imagine he spent the years following that discovery persuading a skeptical world about what he knew to be true. Are our students of rhetoric today being adequately equipped with the tools necessary to persuade a skeptical world of what they know to be true?