What Aristotle and Stephen Colbert Have In Common

Every great writer has a strong voice. Helping students find their own is key to any "writing revolution."


Left: Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome; right: Reuters

The debate about the "writing revolution," sparked by Peg Tyre's recent Atlantic article, is grounded in a false dichotomy -- the notion that somehow creativity and an expressive voice exist in opposition to lucid expository, analytical, or persuasive writing. Our experience teaching writing at Hampden-Sydney College and the success our writing program has enjoyed for more than 30 years have convinced us that this stark opposition is both unnecessary and counterproductive.

Good writing is clear writing, no doubt. But the best writing -- writing that informs and persuades simultaneously -- is engaged, passionate prose that unites head and heart in an individual voice. Writers and teachers since before Aristotle have understood the powerful link between reason and emotion, structure and style, that is essential to powerful, persuasive writing and speaking. How else can we account for the lasting impact of Pericles' Funeral Oration or Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or Second Inaugural? How else can we explain the persuasive arguments of Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" or his "I Have a Dream" speech?

We sell young writers short -- and wall them off from access to the world's conversation -- when we imply that readers will be willing to plow through disordered personal impressions. But we also sell them short when we tell them that no one cares what they feel or think.

Hampden-Sydney College is one of four or, depending on how one counts, five liberal arts colleges for men in the country, and teaching students to write and speak well has been a primary focus here since our founding in 1775. With that in mind, it's not surprising that our former students include such wordsmiths as William H. Armstrong (Sounder), Michael Knight (The Typist), and Stephen Colbert.

But not all of our incoming freshmen are naturally gifted with words. Our college has made writing a high priority for all students, and since 1978, the college's rhetoric program has been the institutional center of that effort. Our students read and analyze classic American works by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, along with essays by E.B. White and George Orwell, Annie Dillard, and Virginia Woolf. But they also read contemporary creative nonfiction by Scott Sanders, Rebecca Skloot, Pico Iyer, Lee Gutkind, Anne Fadiman, and Phillip Lopate, among many others.

Good writing is clear writing, no doubt. But the best writing is engaged, passionate prose that unites head and heart in an individual voice.

Our students read not just to encounter or appreciate these writers. Instead, they examine how these authors combine an attention to structure with creative and innovative personal styles, all in the service of what they wish to say. In this regard, writing classes at Hampden-Sydney no doubt resemble those at other colleges nationwide. But Hampden-Sydney's rhetoric courses also embody the belief that familiarity with our language's rhetorical structures prepares students to use sentences and paragraphs purposefully, and thus helps them develop an individual writing voice that is clear, engaging, and persuasive.

Even as our students study the broader structures of analytical and persuasive prose, they learn how to wield sentence grammar and syntax, the tools our language supplies (here we actually agree with Tyre). Like other writing instructors nationwide, we show students how to organize their thoughts while helping them break loose from formulaic patterns for writing (such as the five-paragraph essay). We help them learn to express their thoughts not just lucidly but powerfully by combining, expanding, or reducing their sentences in multiple ways.

Presented by

Chris Howard, Elizabeth J. Deis, and Lowell T. Frye

Chris Howard is the president of Hampden-Sydney College. Elizabeth J. Deis and Lowell T. Frye are Hampden-Sydney professors of rhetoric and humanities.

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