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Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, is on a scholarly rescue mission.
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MOST OF THE EXAMPLES Farnsworth uses come from English prose. “They start around 1600, the age of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and end around 1950. The largest share are from the nineteenth century and the latter part of the eighteenth.… The better authors and statesmen of those earlier periods studied rhetoric more closely than it tends to be studied today. We may not want to talk now quite as people did in earlier times.… But the ablest of the earlier writers still make the best teachers of rhetoric.”
Given the dates and periods from which he picks his rhetoricians, there’s an unhappy truth implicit in Farnsworth’s selections. It was around 1600 that English became English, and it was in the 18th, 19th, and the early 20th centuries that it was perfected. By Farnsworth’s cut-off date, the 1950s, the overarching structure of the language was largely completed, its elements taken for granted, and from then on it increasingly became in universities and other centers of learning a matter of trying to maintain the structure, fight off decay, and attempt to restore what was inevitably being lost.
English, we’re frequently told, is a living, evolving language, and as evidence we’re shown various popular vulgarisms periodically allowed into the language. But they are what they are, and the language pretty much remains what it was in the 1950s and into the 1960s, when teachers of English largely abandoned their efforts to teach basic composition, grammarians threw in their towels, and rhetoricians, like classicists, teetered on the edge of extinction.
It may not be possible to reverse the process. But Farnsworth is on a scholarly rescue mission. “Rhetoric is a vast, old and honorable discipline. It may be defined most broadly and simply as the use of language to persuade or otherwise affect an audience. The decline of rhetoric in our times is thus a much broader phenomenon than any decline in familiarity with figures of speech.”
“This selection,” he writes, “reflects one of the chief purposes of the book, which is to help recover a rhetorical tradition in English…that is fast becoming more distant as a cultural and stylistic matter.”
Webster’s Third defines rhetoric as “the art of expressive speech or discourse” or “the study of principles and rules of composition formulated by ancient critics… and interpreted by classical scholars for application to discourse in the vernacular.”
Most of us who make our living with words and have at one time or another taught courses in English composition probably wouldn’t think of ourselves as classical scholars. But we’ve all wrestled with applying those principles and rules to “discourse in the vernacular.” And one of the central problems in American education today is the widespread failure to make that application successfully — or, in many cases, even to try.
For our colleges and universities, where things like rhetoric were once taken seriously, the assignment of Mr. Farnsworth’s book as required reading might just awaken some echoes of what used to be a primary mission.
And who knows? In all this country, on all those campuses, in all those college towns, where all those gin joints will never close, there just might be a revival of interest in Farnsworth’s “old and honorable discipline.”
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H/T to National Review Online