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Adventures in Academe

Helping our students to develop rhetorical literacy

It’s never been more urgent for students to learn how to harness the power of persuasion as a force for good.


“What hill are you willing to die on?” I pose this question on the first day of my 200-level rhetoric class. “And how can you persuade others to join you?”

In this course, which surveys the landscape of rhetoric from classical to contemporary times, we examine the uses and abuses of rhetoric from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Obama and beyond. Rhetoric, until recently considered an antiquated subject and relic of the medieval curriculum, is now enjoying a comeback. In fact, developing rhetorical literacy has never been so urgent.

This generation of students is facing some of the most thorny challenges one can imagine: the climate crisis, income inequality, gendered violence, food and water security, and geopolitical instability. Compound this with the rise in disinformation campaigns, information warfare, fake news and post-truth politics, and the sheer complexity of these pressing issues is overwhelming. As institutions of higher learning we must provide students with the tools to navigate this complexity. One of the most powerful tools they can wield is rhetorical literacy.

Greta Thunberg is a powerful case study: in 14 months she went from a 15-year-old protesting alone in front of the Swedish Parliament to addressing world leaders at the United Nations on climate change. Greta is riding a wave of youth advocacy that has become part of our cultural zeitgeist; “the spirit of our times” is now animated by young people who have become orators of hope.

Malala Yousafzai was the youngest person to receive a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at the age of 17. David Hogg and Emma González – along with their classmates – organized the largest protest in U.S. history with over 1 million people participating in March for Our Lives in March 2018.

Autumn Peltier is a powerhouse in the fight to protect water in Canada’s Indigenous communities. The teenage activist from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario has been a tireless advocate for water security and urged the General Assembly to “warrior up” when she addressed the United Nations in March 2018 at the age of 13.

While the social issues differ – climate crisis, female access to education, gun control and water security – they all have something in common: these orators of hope are all trained in rhetoric. Greta Thunberg’s mother, Malena Ernman, is an internationally acclaimed opera singer and her father Svante Thunberg is a classically trained stage actor, producer and writer. Malala Yousafzai’s parents owned a chain of schools and provided her with an intensive education in Western literature, including Shakespeare (whose plays deliver a master class in rhetoric).

David Hogg and Emma González attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where they were trained in the performing and liberal arts. In fact, their school board promotes a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.” Autumn Peltier’s great-aunt, Josephine Mandamin, founder of the Mother Earth Water Walkers, was an Anishinaabe elder, water activist and chief water commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation – and an exceptional orator.

These orators of hope have been educated on the power of persuasion and coached in public speaking from elders who have mastered the art of rhetoric. The problem is that rhetoric – when it is used in our contemporary context – is loaded with negative connotations. In the political sphere, rhetoric is used as a label to devalue an individual by suggesting that their words are empty or artificial. David Hogg and Emma González were so effective at public speaking that they were accused of being “crisis actors” by the Conservative media.

Silencing opponents by accusing them of “rhetoric” is not a new charge. As far back as there was rhetoric, there was a suspicion that people could use words to alter another person’s reality for various purposes – for the good, the bad and the downright nefarious.

In its most basic form, however, rhetoric is the ability to persuade. According to the ancients, reason gives us purpose (telos), and rhetoric is the instrument of reason. For Aristotle and his contemporaries, rhetoric – as reason in action – helps us move beyond the vagaries of power of coercion and seduction to reach a higher, transcendental plane of understanding and empathy. We must help students to recognize rhetoric in all its forms and to harness the power of persuasion as a unifying force for good.

The deep irony is that these orators of hope skipped school to enact social change. Instead of getting in the way, how do we become integral to  the process?

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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  1. Stuart Chambers / January 9, 2020 at 16:14

    Good article. Professor Michael J. Hyde writes about rhetorical eloquence in his books too, namely “Perfection: Coming to Terms with Being Human” and “The Life-Giving Gift of Acknowledgment.” Highly recommended for those interested in the power (for good or bad) of rhetoric.