Composition and the Progym
Aristotle said that rhetoric (literally, the art of the orator) is “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Rhetoric is a subject in and of itself, but it is also more than that. It is the development of tools that can be used in all subjects. It is the art of using words to persuade or to please. The need for persuasive articulation of truth is certainly as great today as it has ever been. The time-proven canons of rhetoric provide guiding principles for teaching composition in a systematic and age-appropriate way for all of our students.
The Canons of Rhetoric
In the classical world, rhetoric was divided into five canons, or parts: Invention, Arrangement, Eloquence, Memory, and Delivery. The composition portions of our English Studies classes focus most heavily on the first three, but will also touch on the last two which are more specifically directed towards oratory.
- Invention—what am I going to say? The word itself is derived from the Latin invenire, literally meaning to come upon or to find. The classical method of analyzing and imitating worthwhile works provides meaningful content for our students’ compositions. Most young scholars simply do not have the life experience and wisdom to develop meaningful content, making “what am I going to say?” a doleful lament instead of a delightful quest. Invention is discovering the important ideas.
- Arrangement—in what order should I say it? Arrangement is organizing the content in a composition. The ancients developed fixed principles of arrangement based upon the purpose of the speech or composition. Analyzing and imitating effectively arranged compositions promotes internalization of these principles in our students. Arrangement is establishing the optimal order.
- Elocution (Style)—in what manner should I say it? The personal style of an apprentice under a great master will come forth in time, but that style will be informed by the brilliance of the master. In the same way, the style, or voice, of our young scholars will come forth in due time, but it will reflect the great masters under whom they have apprenticed. Analyzing and imitating enduring works of the past produces eloquence in our students. Elocution is employing winsome words.
The canons of rhetoric, then, aim to cultivate persons who communicate important ideas (Invention) in the optimal order (Arrangement) with winsome words (Eloquence).
We have based our pedagogy (teaching method) on a combination of the Greek Progymnasmata (Progym) and specific instruction in essay writing based primarily on the classical oration. Literary analysis, poetry analysis, and a strong emphasis on grammar round out our English Studies program.
The Greek word progymnasmata literally means “exercises before”. They are fourteen successive exercises designed to systematically train students in elegant and effective rhetoric. As they worked through these exercises progressively, ancient Greek and Roman scholars analyzed and imitated great orators and authors of their past. With the knowledge gained from each level, they would then write their own compositions. The aim of this training was to produce persons with the ability to defend ideas and actions in both the public forum and in the court of law. For further explanation of the Progymnasmata and a description of each of the fourteen exercises, please visit Cottage Press.
Each level of the Progym has fixed content and organization, which allows students to avoid the inevitable writer’s block which results from modern “creative writing” programs. Systematically implemented principles of effective communication, along with exposure to challenging and important thoughts and ideas produces superior thinking and composition skills. Exercises, models, and compositions increase in complexity and length as students mature. The aim is to prepare students for ALL of life’s writing requirements. Of course, this includes academic and college-level composition, but is certainly not limited to these formats which will only be in use for a very short season in the lives of most students.
English Studies at Providence Prep
Our English Studies commence with the fable and narrative exercises of the Progym. Fable & Song and Bards & Poets develop foundational English grammar. Spelling, vocabulary, figures of speech, and literary terms are studied in context using classic fables, parables, narratives, and poems. Students analyze the work by outlining it, summarizing it, and examining the literary techniques its author employs. They imitate the work by copying it and writing it from dictation or memory. Finally, they retell the narrative work in their own words. The concrete exercise of retelling of a fable or narrative is well-suited for elementary students who need plenty of practice in composition, but are not yet ready to deal in the abstractions required by essay writing. As they become proficient in retelling fables and narratives, students are given the additional challenge of adding their own figures of speech and figures of description. They learn to vary the narrative chronology and point of view. Students at these levels are also encouraged to compose their own poetry by imitating excellent and time-honored poems.
Junior high and high school students who have completed Bards & Poets move into our Poetics & Progym classes. Poetics & Progym I is a beginning course in academic composition covering the basic persuasive essay form via Progym proverb and anecdote exercises. This is set alongside an intensive review of grammar, figures of speech, poetry analysis, and literary concepts. In Poetics & Progym II, students begin with Progym exercise twins confirmation and refutation, then practice the common-place exercise, and finish with progym triplet exercises encomium, invective, and comparison, along with more advanced essay analysis and composition. In Poetics & Progym III, students complete the Progym with exercises description, speech-in-character, thesis, and law. The orderly and prescribed content of the Progym provides a way for students to consider a concept or an issue from many angles. This, in turn, allows students to hone their abstract thinking skills and apply them to composition. Our capstone English Studies course is Logic & Rhetoric, a study of formal logic together with classical rhetorical theory. Here students will have opportunity to hone their writing, presentation, and speaking skills for the purpose of clear and winsome persuasion. In keeping with the classical tradition, the goal of this course virtuous communication, not just winning an argument for the sake of winning. Along with the ancient Greeks, we believe that the true rhetor must first be a truly virtuous person.
Humanities courses and English Studies at Providence Prep are designed as complementary courses. Essay topics for English Studies are often based on content from our Humanities I and II courses. Humanities assignments and discussions assume an understanding of the literary and poetry analysis concepts taught in English Studies.
Our English Studies courses become more rigorous and fast-paced in the later elementary years. This rigor continues through the upper level courses as well. Our expectation and strong recommendation is that students are concurrently enrolled in Latin at Providence Prep, or in an equivalent grammar-based Latin course. Latin grammar and English grammar reinforce one another in a way that produces superior understanding and mastery of principles and concepts.