Saturday, July 26, 2008

Socrates in the Living Room

In his famous work entitled “The Last Days of Socrates”, Plato gives us a window into the life of that legendary philosopher as he was on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens with unconventional and supposedly heretical ideas. Socrates, despite the fact that he was eventually convicted, spent much of the trial persuading his adversaries to admit the tenuousness of their positions by questioning them with the now famous “Socratic Method”. Using this method, Socrates would chip away at the preconceived notions and illogical reasoning forming the basis of his opponents’ arguments until they gave up, or admitted that their thought processes were contradictory and full of fallacies.

With the fear of public speaking typically ranking slightly above the fear of death in many polls conducted in this country, it’s hard to imagine many folks jumping at a chance to argue their points of view in public, let alone attempt to convince others to abandon their arguments through logic. There is still plenty of arguing that goes on these days; one needs only to turn on a news network or talk radio to see that; but much of it is sadly lacking in substance and logic. Many of these arguments contain provocations rather than points and do an excellent job of inciting the opposition to respond in kind, but little to inform the public or illuminate issues.

Somewhere along the way the art of rhetoric started to become a lost art.

When we hear the term “rhetoric” used these days, it is most often used as a term to summarize a person’s overall argument concerning an issue, but it wasn’t always so. Rhetoric was once a highly developed and polished method using logic and evidence to argue one’s point of view. Rhetoric was taught at universities by professors who would educate students in argumentation and encourage them to debate the issues and questions of the day. Outside the classroom, many bright Americans polished their debating ability in clubs called “Lyceum” that were set up expressly for that purpose, and modeled after the forum established by Socrates in Athens. Whatever the setting was, the primary goal was intelligent debate rather than verbal squabbling. One gifted member of the Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, was Abraham Lincoln, who with his campaign opponent in 1858, Stephen Douglas, provided a series of rollicking political debates that informed, entertained, and are still studied by scholars today.

Even thought rhetoric is not formally taught as a subject anymore, it doesn’t mean you can’t create your own Lyceum in your family living room. One of the great benefits of homeschooling is the time that it provides for individual instruction and discussion. One of the things I’ve noticed during my work as a private tutor is that the verbal skills of my students who converse and interact with their parents on a regular basis seem to consistently exceed those of the students who do not have that in their home life. Any positive interaction is good, of course, but it’s even better when parents actively engage their children in conversation. Conversation helps develop speaking skills, listening skills and analytical skills. Good conversation starters are questions that cannot be answered with simply a “yes” or “no”. Topics of conversation can include activities, events, books, or anything that it’s possible to say more than a few words about. If your child participated in an activity that you were not present at, try asking them for a detailed description; something that will result in them having to arrange information in their heads and deliver it in an ordered manner.

Homeschooling parents also have the opportunity to be involved in their child’s curriculum. There are many academic subjects that provide the opportunity for debate and discussion. History, for example, provides an enormous amount of material for analysis and interpretation. When your child is studying a certain time period, ask them questions that encourage them to not only absorb the material, but interpret it as well. If you’re studying the American Revolution, you can ask your child if the colonists were justified in rebelling against England and King George. If these actions were justified, then why? Could King George have acted differently to satisfy the colonists and prevent the revolution? Did the loyalists have just reasons for remaining loyal to the crown? Try asking your child what they would have done if they had lived during that time period. When they give you an answer, ask them to explain the reasoning behind their answer. The opportunities for discussion are endless.

Another medium providing great opportunities for discussion and debate are novels and biographies. Ask your child about their impressions of a certain character in the book they are reading, and what causes that character to act in the way they do. Does the character always act as he or she should in certain situations? If not, what causes them to make wrong decisions? Quality fiction can help develop your child’s awareness of metaphor, simile, and help develop their skills of interpreting the world around them.

If you have more than one student at home, or if you know other homeschooled students, try having the students pick an issue and debate it, with each student taking a side. Try taking an issue from a period of history that you are studying. For the American Revolution, you could have one student debate as a loyalist and the other debate as a patriot. Having a student argue in support of a position they do not normally support can be a very educational experience, and can help them understand their own views with more clarity. Be sure to emphasize that civility is the first rule in debates (despite what we see in political debates sometimes!), and that the students should treat each other and each other’s views with respect. Also, remind them that they are not trying to “win” against each other, but rather, respond to each other with reason and intelligence.

Finally, one of the best ways to learn how to be a great speaker is to study great speeches. Many libraries carry recordings or books containing great speeches of history. A great web resource is American Rhetoric (, a site that offers a database of great speeches from history. All of the speeches can be read and many of them can be listened to. Try studying a great speech and asking your student why that speech is considered “great”. Ask them what kind of speech it is. Is it persuasive, descriptive, or elegiac? How does the speaker deliver his or her point? Does he or she use religious terminology? Does the speaker appeal to the emotions of the audience? Or just to their minds?

Rhetoric isn’t just for politicians. The ability to express oneself in a clear and concise manner and argue a point effectively is an invaluable skill. By engaging and encouraging your child in meaningful discussion, you can help bring Socrates back into the classroom and the living room!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Abe Lincoln Slept Here

One day, many years ago, a town called New Salem rose like Brigadoon out of the forest to meet a young man named Abe Lincoln, and the country would never be the same.

Yesterday, as I celebrated our nation's birthday with a brat and can of soda in my hand, the life and times of our sixteenth president came to mind. In particular, I began to think of the days he spent as a young man along the Sangamon River, years before anyone would ever know his name or speak of his greatness. Lincoln came to New Salem by flatboat while returning from New Orleans, having been hired by a man to travel down to that port city and sell a load of wares. The Sangamon River was low that year, and Lincoln's raft was caught on the dam that powered the small town's mill. One of the men who came down the bluff from the town to help free the raft was opening a store soon, and seeing something in young Lincoln, offered Abe a job running the store. Lincoln agreed, and after completing his trip, returned to New Salem for the job that awaited him.

The Abe Lincoln that entered New Salem was tall, gangly, and twenty-two years old. He had only one year of formal education, but a remarkable ability to educate himself. He was unsure of his future, and while he had ambition to make something of himself, he had no idea what that something was. Lincoln, later in life, remarked that he arrived in New Salem as directionless as a twig floating on a river. A gifted storyteller with a quick mind and sense of humor, Lincoln quickly became popular with the townspeople who appreciated him for his personality and strong work ethic. New Salem was such a good fit for Lincoln that he stayed even after the failures of the original store he clerked at and a subsequent store he opened with a friend. After the business failures, the town still found work for the young man as a surveyor and as the town's postmaster.

I traveled down to central Illinois a couple of years ago and had a chance to walk around New Salem. The town was restored through a grant by the Rockefellers, and it's possible to see New Salem much as it was in the days of Lincoln. Upon arriving at a small general store that also served as the town's post office, the docent informed us that Lincoln slept in the back of that building while he was postmaster. We walked to the back of the small log cabin, and next to a row of cubbyholes for sorting mail there was a small, narrow cot. "Abe Lincoln slept here," the docent said, pointing to the cot. "He never owned property here, so he slept in various places around town." Basically, Lincoln slept on people's couches for seven years.

I enjoy museums, and have seen many antiquities over the years, but I have rarely ever seen an object as inspirational as Lincoln's cot. To hear that a man comes from humbles origins is one thing, but to see the cot that he slept on in the back of a store is another.

Sometimes in life it seems that the odds are stacked against us and our days are filled with too many defeats and not enough victories. Lincoln knew about failure and tragedy; he lost his mother and sister when he was a young boy and his early adulthood is a litany of failed enterprises; but while his spirit was beaten it was never broken. The difficulties in Lincoln's life played a tremendous role in shaping his character, and we need only to look at his past to see the circumstances that helped create a man who spent long nights in the Oval Office writing compassionate letters to war widows. Difficulties can either embitter a person or bring out their true greatness, and in Lincoln they did the latter.

Lincoln didn't sleep on that cot forever. Eventually he became interested in law, and since he couldn't afford law school, began to study the subject in the shade of New Salem's trees. He was also elected to the Illinois State Assembly by the people of the area, and at age twenty-nine, set off down the road to Springfield and legend.

Next time your child faces difficulties and needs some inspiration, try telling them about Abe Lincoln and his cot.