How to Build a Better Student: Can a 16th-century discipline improve modern scholarship?
Eloquentia perfecta may sound like one of the more benign spells cast by Hermione Granger in a Harry Potter novel. Yet to those well versed in Jesuit tradition, the phrase evokes an elegance and erudition in learning and communication, whether in public speaking or writing, that is directed not toward the mere perfection of these skills but toward service to the common good.
Robert Grimes, S.J., the dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center in New York, says that there are three components of eloquentia perfecta. “First of all is…the right use of reason; the second one is to be able to express your thoughts into words; and the third one is to [communicate] gracefully, that is, do it in a way so that people are willing to listen to what you say.” The eloquentia concept emerges out of the rhetorical studies of the ancient Greeks, but it was codified in the Jesuit tradition in 1599 with the Ratio Studiorum, the official plan of studies for Jesuit teaching institutions.
Fordham University has turned eloquentia perfecta into the organizing principle of a recent revision of its core curriculum. The university is finishing its second year of an effort that will direct students in each class year to four different eloquentia perfecta seminars. What distinguishes eloquentia classes from a typical course is an intense attention to developing students’ written and oral communication skills. Students devote a higher percentage of class time to preparing and presenting oral reports; they must complete more writing requirements; and each assignment is more thoroughly reviewed and revised by instructors and often by fellow classmates as well.
A number of other Jesuit institutions have been exploring ways to transplant this notion of “perfect eloquence” into a contemporary academic setting. That may not be as daunting as it sounds. Paul Lynch, an assistant professor of English at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo., and chair of the Jesuit Conference on Rhetoric and Composition, points out that in the discipline’s earliest days, students in rhetoric posted their arguments on walls where other students could view, dispute or support their positions. Such thinking in public, he says, is not far removed from the “crowd sourcing” he encourages in his classes today as students share and contribute to a single text through Google Docs. According to Mr. Lynch, the St. Louis faculty are just beginning to discuss how to apply the principles of eloquentia in a coming revision of the core curriculum.
Steven Mailloux, President’s Professor of Rhetoric at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Calif., says modern educators found a justification for the university’s commitment to diversity studies through a concept out of the eloquentia tradition: “moribus gentium,” a requirement to study the morals or customs of nations and peoples. Loyola Marymount has proposed a revision of its core curriculum around eloquentia perfecta. The plan has been approved by the university senate and must now be voted on by the full faculty before development can continue.
Not Really a Comeback
Do these efforts represent a 21st-century comeback for this 16th-century discipline? Part of the reason some Jesuit institutions are reviving eloquentia has to do with timing. Ann Mannion, an associate professor of history at Fordham University and director of its Center for Teaching Excellence, notes that every 10 years or so most institutions take a hard look at the structure and emphasis of their core curriculum to see whether adjustments or even major restructuring is in order.
Mr. Lynch says rhetoric itself has been enjoying a resurgence of interest in recent years, and since Jesuits have contributed much to that field, educators are naturally rediscovering aspects of the Jesuit tradition. “Part of it,” he says, “is just people looking for a better way to teach writing.”
Father Grimes suggests that thinking of eloquentia as a resurgence or rediscovery may not quite be fair to the ongoing reality of Jesuit institutional life. Elements of eloquentia have consistently been part of Jesuit learning. “The phrase had fallen out of use,” he says, “not the ideas.”
“We’re trying to make explicit,” agrees Professor Mailloux, “what may have been implicit.”
In an era of texting and Gameboy thumb fatigue, one might suspect that concerns about the capabilities of incoming freshmen would partly explain Fordham’s interest in restoring eloquentia. But while every generation of elders since Cicero seems eager to address the many deficiencies of the younger generation, Father Grimes says that was notthe case at Fordham.
“I’m not so sure that [the caliber of students is] all that different from my own generation,” says Father Grimes. “These are just skills that you really have to learn, and you learn them by doing them,” he says. “With any core curriculum,” he adds wryly, “most people hate [it] while they do it, and they fall in love with it 10 years later at alumni reunions.”
Something as modern as the pace and technological capacity of the digital age also has driven the recovery of this centuries-old discipline. Mr. Lynch has been in the vanguard of St. Louis academics considering how eloquentia might be incorporated into the university’s core curriculum. The digital age represents a third great communication revolution after print and television. According to him, “There has always been a rhetorical revolution that follows the technological revolution.”
Mr. Lynch says his students face a complex of sources and modes of communication—Wikipedia.com, Glenn Beck and iPads, flash media slideshows and embedded YouTube videos. All these vie for attention and claim a legitimacy and authority that will demand supple analytical skills. A primary goal of the tradition, Mr. Lynch says, is to give students the intellectual tools they need not only to absorb that digital cacophony and make sense of it, but also to recognize true authority among all the competing “facts” and positions that make up contemporary media.
“There is this onslaught of information and modes of communication,” says Mr. Lynch . The Internet is a tremendous, if potentially hazardous resource. “We can find things out ourselves, but we can also find out things that aren’t true,” he adds. Are students ready to respond to the rapidity and omnipresence of communication in their lives? “We have to retool ourselves in order to deal with this,” he says, “and, ironically, this old tradition can help.”
In the past, an institutional emphasis on eloquentia perfecta may not have seemed necessary. With so many Jesuits in the classroom, men who were steeped in the tradition and whose classrooms may have been unacknowledged labs of eloquentia perfecta, a specific structural emphasis on the tradition might have felt redundant. These days, however, fewer Jesuits walk the halls of Jesuit schools, and a clerical version of the glass ceiling in Jesuit education has been cracking for some years. Only 19 of the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges are currently headed by Jesuit presidents, and only a handful of Jesuits remain as deans of students. Loyola Marymount just appointed the first non-Jesuit president in its 100-year history—David Burcham, the son of a Presbyterian pastor. In some schools, the “second line of defense,” as Ms. Mannion describes the Catholic lay teaching staff, has also thinned out as appointments and advancement in scholarship became driven by credentials, and questions about religious beliefs during job interviews became prohibited by law.
“All the 28 Jesuit colleges have to deal with it,” says Ms. Mannion. “Yes, they’re private institutions,” she says, “they’re Jesuit; they’re Catholic.” But now: “What does it mean to be a school in the Jesuit tradition?” Revisiting the dictums of the eloquentia tradition may allow institutions to shore up their Jesuit identity while reinvigorating their curriculum.
It is that Jesuit identity that distinguishes the rhetorical skill-building of eloquentia from what students might expect in a rhetoric program at a secular institution. Loyola Marymount’s Professor Mailloux says Jesuit faculty members can integrate attention to critical-thinking skills with the development of moral discernment and social responsibility among their students. Making use of Ignatian spirituality, perhaps even introducing students to the Ignatian spiritual exercises, an eloquentia perfecta core also integrates “concrete imagining, affective consciousness and the use of emotions with critical thinking and learning.” It is a powerful combination that cannot happen elsewhere. “It’s not all about logic,” Professor Mailloux says, “it’s not all about dialectic; it’s about combining it in a responsible way with imagining and emotion.”
Can this Jesuit style be properly interpreted by lay and even non-Catholic teaching professionals? Ms. Mannion says Fordham’s experience with its revised curriculum has been positive; its faculty has rallied to the challenge. After the renewed curriculum was approved, Fordham’s teaching professionals attended a series of workshops designed to familiarize them with the tradition and work through techniques that would allow eloquentia to become an effective part of their syllabi and classroom experience. “You can’t impose this kind of thing,” she says.
The E.P. seminars, as the students and even faculty members have begun to call the classes, begin with a freshman seminar in English composition, a logical starting point given the concept’s emphasis on perfecting writing skills. But eloquentia is not limited to English or rhetoric and communications classes. The concept has been successfully incorporated into a number of different academic disciplines. Ms. Mannion says an E.P. class in natural sciences has been among the program’s most effective.
Have the students noticed the difference? Some, products of Jesuit secondary education, were already familiar with eloquentia perfecta and its intentions. Others, not so much. “I would say that most people know what E.P. stands for,” says one freshman, Graham Smith, “but most, including myself, don’t really know what that means. I just noticed that in the E.P. classes I’ve taken there’s more work and it’s more varied because there are oral presentations and more essays.”
Mr. Smith is not saying that extra work was a bad experience for him. “No, those were my two most interesting classes; I enjoyed them,” he says. He especially liked the discussion-based learning the seminars built upon, a new experience for him: “I think it’s the only way a class should be run.”
A fellow freshman, Patrick Dooley, agreed. “I think it’s important to be able to not just sit there and let the professors lecture to you and take notes.” In the E.P. seminars full of “a lot of talking and discussion…. I felt like a more mature student who was able to take responsibility for my own education.”
Agony and Education
At St. Louis University, Mr. Lynch hopes students who have internalized the skills and intentions of eloquentia perfecta can move beyond the mere capacity to be wise consumers of information. He hopes the new emphasis can recover the “publicness” of learning, “the idea of agonizing or rivalry or contention as generative of knowledge.” Learning in the past involved a struggle to think things out in contention with teachers and other students. But active learning is not just the fruit of contending arguments and ideas. “In Greek, agon meant struggle or fight,” he says, “but it also means a gathering or assembly.”
“To argue with someone is to be with them, to be in community with them,” says Mr. Lynch. He worries that in contemporary public discourse what is retained is “all the struggling and the fighting with none of the togetherness.” It is critical, he argues, for young people to learn how to contend over ideas, how to conduct themselves in disagreement without sacrificing community.
With E.P. 3, its third-year seminar looming on the horizon, Fordham has begun to develop rubrics for evaluating the success of its restoration of eloquentia. Survey results from sophomores have been positive. “We definitely got response from students that they felt their writing had improved,” says Father Grimes. “They felt more prepared to speak in class; they felt more prepared to read assignments to be ready to go into class.”
Walter Johnson, a Fordham freshman, agrees. He says the program has allowed him to “become comfortable with being uncomfortable” as he has stretched himself in oral presentations before his peers. Other students credit the interaction with professors and the frequency of writing assignments and thoroughness of their evaluation with improving their basic academic skills. “We get used to college writing in our first semester,” says Mr. Johnson, “and I think that’s a blessing.”
Fordham’s final E.P. seminar, Senior Values, focuses on integrating what the students have learned and the skills they have developed with contemporary moral issues. What should a graduate of E.P. 4 look like? Ann Mannion proposes this answer: “They should be as articulate and good critical thinkers as we are capable of making them,” she says, with “a degree of moral and ethical sensitivities and, in the ideal sense, a degree of spiritual development.”
“They should be the product of a Jesuit education,” Ms. Mannion says.
Listen to interviews with students and faculty at Fordham University.